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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Stewardship Program: Funding Wisconsin’s Public Lands

Wisconsin lawmakers are again squabbling to craft a state budget, which means hunters, hikers, anglers, trappers and other outdoorsy folks must again disregard their differences and tell politicians to reauthorize the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

We all know this drill. Wisconsin’s outdoors community has written letters, sent emails, and spoken at endless hearings the past 30 years; first to launch “Stew” in 1989 and then to keep it alive to buy and manage public lands. If Republican lawmakers had stuck to the original bipartisan plan we’d only need to pester them every decade, but they extended the program only through July 2021 during the 2019 budget process.

So here we go again. The Department of Natural Resources recently recommended to Gov. Tony Evers that he extend it to July 2031. And groups like the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy are urging people to contact Evers and legislators to dedicate $50 million annually to Stewardship. That’s up roughly $16.75 million annually from current levels, but $36 million below what we committed toward it briefly after 2009.

For further perspective, Wisconsin budgeted $47 million in 1999 and 2000 for Stewardship, and $60 million annually from 2001 through 2009. So, $50 million annually is neither aggressive nor unprecedented, especially when considering land values kept increasing the past decade. Data from Wisconsin’s Department of Revenue show the average price of agricultural land sold in 2018 was $4,345 per acre, an 8% increase from 2014.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin used Knowles-Nelson grants to help the DNR; city-, county- and small-town governments; and private land trusts and other nonprofit organizations buy land for conservation and help its citizens enjoy them. Those entities also built and maintained things to help folks enjoy those lands, including trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, boat launches, and parking areas. Since its 1989 launch, the Stewardship Program has protected over 600,000 acres, invested $1.3 billion in our lands and water; and provided over 1,000 grants to parks and natural areas within reach of our homes.

Yes, we must be responsible and not live beyond what we’re taxed, but Wisconsinites understand that wise investments pay off. That’s why 93% of those polled recently by the bipartisan team of FM3 Research (Democratic) and New Bridge Strategy (Republican) supported the Legislature investing in conservation, including the Stewardship Program. Further, 80% of them supported restoring Stewardship to previous funding levels.

Voters of both parties should remind lawmakers that Wisconsin accommodates a combined 2.9 million hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers annually, and they contribute $3.9 billion to the state’s economy. The Stewardship Program has protected hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and hundreds of river miles for our diverse outdoor recreation.

In fact, lawmakers should use these recurring Stewardship battles to remind hunters to quit complaining about having nowhere to hunt. If you can’t find your own little piece of hunting paradise here, you won’t find it anywhere in the United States. Don’t believe it? Then try finding public lands to hunt in Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska or Oklahoma. The task isn’t futile in those states, but they offer little public land compared to Wisconsin.

And Wisconsin keeps working to help folks find our public lands. One great source is the DNR’s “2020 Public Access Lands Atlas of Wisconsin” (, and the agency’s web page “Public Access Lands Publications” (

If you download that public-lands atlas, turn to the eighth page of that 16-page PDF file. You’ll see an index of properties made possible through Stewardship grants. That index is four pages long and lists 330 properties across the state.

And that’s just one aspect of Stewardship’s many benefits. As Wisconsin’s Nature Conservancy notes, Stewardship funding has also protected over 250,000 acres of working forest in the Northwoods, which delivers forest-related jobs and products. The hope is to protect another 125,000 acres of working forest the next three to five years, assuming our lawmakers stick with Stewardship.

Despite the Stewardship Program’s many benefits, extending it is never easy. That’s probably why its budget fell from $86 million in 2010 to $33.25 million in 2020. Before that bleak decade, many great Wisconsin politicians and conservationists supported the program.

The Stewardship fight in 2007, for instance, inspired Harald “Bud” Jordahl to fight the Legislature’s attempts to slash its annual funding to $25 million. Jordahl, who died at 83 in 2010, was inducted into Wisconsin’s Conservation Hall of Fame in 2005. He continually reminded lawmakers that Stewardship is a nonpartisan program. In fact, it’s named after former governors Warren Knowles, a Republican; and Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat.

“Republicans never wanted to give Gaylord Nelson any credit, and Democrats never gave Warren Knowles or Tommy Thompson any credit, but they worked together for conservation,” Jordahl said in October 2007. “They knew how much this program meant to Wisconsin. Whether it’s duck stamps, cigarette taxes, federal excise taxes, license surcharges or public bonds, our citizens have always bought and preserved lands for themselves and future generations.”

Jordahl also gave lawmakers this history quiz: Who was governor from the late 1980s through 2000 when the state purchased the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in Iron County and the Willow Flowage in Oneida County, and created the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway in southwestern Wisconsin? That man was also governor when Wisconsin bought lands that later (in 2000) became the Gov. Tommy G. Thompson Centennial State Park in Marinette County.

Yep. We can thank Tommy Thompson and the Stewardship Program for our access to those incredible properties. Thompson, a proud Republican, consistently knew what mattered most to Wisconsin’s voters, no matter their party affiliation.

Now is a good time to remind our state senators and Assembly representatives not to forsake such uniquely Wisconsin efforts.

Wisconsin provides diverse recreational fun to nearly 3 million people each year with help from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. — Patrick Durkin photo

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