Bipartisan Conservation Succeeds

Over 600,000 acres in Wisconsin have been protected for hikers, bikers, hunters, birders, researchers and more. It happened because Democrats and Republicans worked together.

This is another in an occasional series of guest blogs by a distinguished group of contributors.

By Spencer Black

It’s hard to find rays of sunshine amidst the dark clouds of the pandemic. I hesitate to find any upside to a catastrophe that has decimated the economy, curtailed our lives and killed more than a quarter-million on our fellow Americans.

Nonetheless I’ve seen at least one positive consequence of the pandemic. As many of the normal social and entertainment options have been foreclosed, there has been a renewed interest in outdoor recreation and a greater appreciation of our parks, trails and green spaces.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice that bike and hiking trails and parks are more crowded since the pandemic hit.  

It isn’t just happenstance that we have those trails, preserved natural areas, parks and forests.  At the entrance to many of our outdoor treasures is a sign indicating that the land has been protected by the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.  

Spencer Black

More than 30 years ago, as Chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, I helped create the Stewardship Fund to protect the best of what’s left of outdoor Wisconsin.  I did so because I believe that current and future generations deserve the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful places and recreational opportunities that make Wisconsin special. Taking action was and continues to be essential in the face of development pressure and potentially unwise land use decisions.

The success of the Stewardship Fund has exceeded my wildest dreams.  It has been the greatest conservation effort in Wisconsin history protecting more than 600,000 acres for public enjoyment by expanding state parks and forests, preserving unique natural areas and wildlife habitat as well as providing the facilities for the public to enjoy these resources. 

The Stewardship Fund has protected many of our landscape scale natural assets such as the 40,000-acre Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, tens of thousands of acres of our northern forests, and the last undeveloped section of the Wisconsin Dells.  Just as important, it has set aside natural areas and built trails close to where the majority of the population lives.  Many of our local parks, bike and hiking trails, and nearby state parks have been expanded with assistance from Stewardship.  These outdoor opportunities have been vital during the pandemic.

The Stewardship Fund originally set aside money for ten years.  It has been renewed several times over the years, but it will expire if the Governor and state legislature do not renew the program in the next state budget.  Unfortunately, the past few state budgets have cut funding for the Stewardship Fund substantially.  The Fund should not only be renewed – it should be restored to its previous funding level.

The Stewardship Fund has strong support.  Renewal of the fund is endorsed by a coalition of more than 50 groups representing environmental organizations, businesses, local governments, and hunting and fishing groups.  Public surveys have found that 93% percent of Wisconsin voters want to see Stewardship reauthorized.  This includes 89% of Republicans, 90% of Independents, and 100% of Democrats.

In a time of increased partisan rancor, I hope that reauthorizing the Stewardship Fund and restoring its full funding might be something both parties could work together to accomplish.  When I developed the Stewardship Fund, I had some very special bipartisan help.  I was advised by former Governors Gaylord Nelson (a Democrat) and Warren Knowles (a Republican).  Both Governors had admirable records of advancing land conservation during their tenures.   It’s with good reason that the Stewardship Fund is named after them. 

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund exemplifies what was, at least in the not too distant past, our historic legacy of a bipartisan commitment to conservation.  Perhaps it can be again.

Spencer Black served in the Wisconsin Assembly for a quarter century, ending with his retirement in 2011. Black is arguably the most consequential Wisconsin environmental policy maker during that period, authoring or being the key player in the state’s landmark recycling law, the Stewardship land conservation program and the protection of the free-flowing and scenic Lower Wisconsin Riverway, among other accomplishments. He served on the national board of the Sierra Club. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Cap Times.

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