Promoting the enjoyment, study, and conservation of Wisconsin's birds.

This is the second in a series of reports on potential termination of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program in 2020.

By Michael John Jaeger, WSO Conservation Committee Chair

Since 1990, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been a tremendous success in affording long-term protection to quality natural areas (such as WSO’s recent Honey Creek Nature Preserve expansion), the development of outdoor recreational opportunities and opening thousands of acres to public access.

The stewardship program, administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), is funded using general obligation bonds, which, like a mortgage, require the state to pay principal and interest over time for an investment that will last for generations. Debt service for stewardship borrowing amounts to about $15 per resident per year.

This successful public-private partnership is currently funded at $33.5 million per year. This is broken down into:
- $9 million for DNR acquisitions (2/3 of which must be allocated to conservation easement purchases)
- $7 million for grants to nonprofit conservation organizations
- $5 million for grants to county forests
- $6 million for projects sponsored by local governments
- $3.25 million for DNR property development
- $2.5 million for recreational boating projects
- $500,000 for motorized trail development

Our challenge is that Knowles-Nelson will expire soon if the governor and the State Legislature don’t act during the next state budget. Wisconsin has a two-year state budget, which will be debated in the first half of 2019. The program is only authorized through June 2020, the middle of this next two-year budget period.  

There are three important steps needed to extend stewardship: 1) The WDNR’s budget request to the governor; 2) the governor’s consolidated budget request to the Legislature; and 3) the Legislature’s modified budget after review by its Joint Finance Committee.

The first step is already past, and, I’m happy to report, the WDNR has included in its budget request a recommendation that the Stewardship Program be extended for 10 years (through 2030) at its currently authorized annual level of $33.5 million.

The second step is watching to see whether the governor will include this recommendation in his overall proposed budget request. This should go to the Legislature in late January or early February. Our current governor, Scott Walker, has not been a strong Stewardship supporter in the past, so we’ll have to see where he stands on this if he is re-elected Nov. 6.  If his Democratic opponent, Tony Evers, is elected, the budget request will be under his control. I’ve not seen anything from Evers on what he thinks about Knowles-Nelson. 

The third major step will occur later in the winter and spring as the Legislature wrestles with the budget. The most important, and publicly accessible, part of the Legislature’s deliberations will come in the Joint Finance Committee. All bills for the appropriation of money, providing for revenue or relating to taxation go to this body composed of eight senators and eight representatives, appointed by the leaders in each house.

There will be public hearings and Joint Finance can add, replace, or modify just about anything in the budget proposed by the governor. The committee not only has the power to keep a Stewardship extension in the budget if the governor proposes it, but the committee can vote to remove it, to modify it, or even to add it back into the budget bill if the governor does not include it.  


Whew.  Lots of possibilities.

All of this will play out between now and early summer. We’ll try to keep track and provide information on how WSO members can offer input to the Legislature at the appropriate time. Stay tuned, and over the next few months I’ll try to provide more background information in the Birder on the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and how it benefits outdoor conservation and recreation in Wisconsin.

--This is one of several timely articles in this month's Badger Birder newsletter; don't miss out on the latest birding and conservation news. Become a WSO member today!