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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Legislative proposal would make it easier to sell off Wisconsin natural areas

Lulu Lake Preserve
Susan Bence
Lulu Lake Preserve in the southern Kettle Moraine is one example of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program at work.

Wisconsin touts its natural assets — from rivers and streams, to woodlands in between. For more than 30 years the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has helped conserve approximately 650,000 natural acres in the state.

The program pays landowners to preserve significant natural areas with an eye on protecting water quality and expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation.

READ: Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program Creates More Greenspace Throughout Wisconsin

Republican state Rep. Calvin Callahan of Tomahawk thinks it should be easier for owners to remove property from the stewardship program and sell it.

On Wednesday, Callahan addressed the Assembly Committee on Forestry Parks and Outdoor Recreation and asked fellow lawmakers to support a proposal he co-authored that, he says, removes the unnecessary red tape.

Rep Callahan outlined his proposal to makes changes in the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program on February 2.
Screenshot taken from WisconsinEye
Rep. Calvin Callahan outlined his proposal to make changes in the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program on Feb. 2.

"Assembly Bill 852 simplifies this process for nongovernment conservation organizations, counties and local governments from start to finish while still maintaining the intent of the stewardship program. No one is required to sell their stewardship land. We're simply making it easier for those who no longer need that land for their own conservancy goals," Callahan said.

Callahan said the process is cumbersome and confusing. Under his proposal, only the state Department of Natural Resources would have to OK the sale.

And, he said, the seller would pay back the full stewardship grant amount to the state "plus interest within one year of their notice to sell the property ... The property must remain open to the public as defined in their original stewardship request until the land is sold."

An organization called Gathering Waters said the proposal could unravel conservation partnerships that, at their foundation, are based on trust.

Charles Carlin
Screenshot taken from WisconsinEye
Gathering Water's Director of Strategic Initiatives Charles Carlin.

Charles Carlin is strategic initiatives director for the alliance that includes more than 40 land trusts around the state.

"To be successful, this work relies on the generosity and trust of landowners. It’s a story of collaboration. We oppose the bill because it diminishes trust of donors and trust of local governments. The understanding among all the parties is that the land is conserved forever. This bill ends that," he said.

Carlin fears the bill could result in up to 90,000 acres purchased by nonprofits and local governments being taken out of conservation.

He told the Assembly committee that rather than encouraging conservation as the Knowles-Nelson program intends, the bill would cultivate what he calls perverse incentive. "Whereby grantees could use the stewardship program as a source of low interest capital in order to purchase real estate, hold it as an appreciating asset and sell it for a profit in the future."

Committee chair Rep Jeff Mursau asked if there is room for compromise on the proposed bill .
Screenshot taken from WisconsinEye
Committee chair Rep Jeff Mursau asked if there is room for compromise on the proposed bill.

Committee chair state Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz, a Republican, asked Carlin if he could support a modified version of the bill. "If it was amended some way to include that if an NCO (nonprofit conservation organization) got money or helped appropriate the money for it that they could put conditions on that, would you be in favor of the bill?" he asked.

"I think we would absolutely be open to having that conversation with the bill authors about how to find a way to have appropriate safeguards," Carlin said. "It’s hard to say right now if such and such were done hypothetically, we would support the bill, but we would welcome that conversation."

The committee is slated to meet in executive session next week.

At the time this story was produced, Mursau hadn’t decided if the bill would be on the agenda. A spokesperson for the representative said Mursau would “definitely consider an amendment that the bill authors and concerned stakeholders could agree on.”

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Editor’s note: A portion of the audio is from WisconsinEye.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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