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Joint Finance Cuts Back Stewardship Funding

A party-line vote cut funding to Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program by $63.5 million dollars over the next seven years.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee tackled environmental issues during its state budget work on Wednesday. WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence monitored the deliberations. She heard emotions pique when the Republican-controlled body debated changes to the state’s stewardship fund.

The discussion culminated in a party-line vote to cut funding by $63.5 million dollars over the next seven years.

Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has existed for more than two decades. It allows the DNR to borrow money to purchase coveted land, so it can remain pristine. To date, the fund has protected more than 600,000 acres.

The last state budget cut funding for the program by 30 percent.

This time around, Gov. Walker proposed only minor changes, so Representative Cory Mason seemed stunned when Republicans proposed further reductions.

“On the heels of an already 30 percent cut – going from $86 million to $60 million is a substantial cut and more understandable in a climate where we had a $ 3 billion deficit that we had to fill. But to do this today, to cut it by another 22 percent and then make it into a public policy and pork Christmas tree,” Mason says.

Fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Jon Richards offered similar criticism. He asked why one state trail in northern Wisconsin was singled out to receive funding.

“I would like someone to defend this pork that is being provided for the Bearskin State Trail project; maybe it’s a great project, I don’t know. But I don’t understand why that’s singled out as the one item that gets money when everything it getting cut and everything else is being sold off, how can that be,” Richards says.

Republican Representative Daniel LeMahieu calmly deflected Democrats’ criticisms, including over the trail under attack.

“The whole idea of stewardship is so that the citizens of Wisconsin, future generations – our kids and grandkids can go to these properties and use them. But we’re saying that if we’re going to buy all this property there is a cost to maintain them and develop them; and that should come out of the Stewardship fund too,” LeMahieu says.

LeMahieu also defended the portion of his plan that requires the DNR to sell 10,000 acres of preserved land.

"It’s my understanding that the DNR has been looking at its portfolio of land, if you want to call it that. They’ve identified over 8,000 acres that they really don’t need,” Le Mahieu says.

In the end, the Republican vote held sway.

Conservation advocates were quick to react – calling the Joint Finance vote a significant blow to Wisconsin’s ability to protect forestry, clean air and water.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.