Conservation groups wary of bill to facilitate sale of Wisconsin public lands purchased with Knowles-Nelson Stewardship funds | Local News
Wisconsin lawmakers are considering legislation to make it easier to sell public land, raising fears the proposal could undermine the trust of private donors who have helped preserve thousands of acres.
The bill would authorize the sale of certain lands purchased with funds from Knowles-Nelson Stewardship, a program through which the Department of Natural Resources helps local governments and non-profit organizations preserve land for land-based use. nature by the public.
Since its creation in 1989, the Knowles–Nelson Program has been used to preserve over 800,000 acres in the whole stateincluding places like the Pheasant Branch Conservancy and Cherokee Marsh.
In Walworth County, the Geneva Lakes Conservancy has been active in protecting land through the assistance of the stewardship program.
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Current law prohibits the sale of Knowles-Nelson land without MNR approval, which the agency rarely grants.
Complementary bills sponsored by a pair of Northern Wisconsin Republicans would allow land acquired through grants to nonprofit conservation groups and local governments to be sold for private use as long as the grant from the l state is reimbursed.
Groups such as Clean Wisconsin, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and Wisconsin Bike Fed oppose the bill, which they say would undermine the state’s stewardship program and outdoor economy.
“That’s a pretty big departure from the current state of the law,” said Charles Carlin, director of strategic initiatives for Water collection, an alliance of more than 40 private land trusts. “It undermines this incredibly popular conservation program.”
While the bill would require repayment of state grants, there is no such provision for private donors who often put up half the funds to buy the land or people who sell at prices below those in the market in the hope that the land will be kept for the public.
“This bill is really about honoring the commitments we’ve made,” said Peter Burress, government affairs manager for Wisconsin Conservation Voters.
Carlin notes that the bill only affects a fraction of Wisconsin’s roughly 6 million acres of public land, but would make it harder for conservation groups to help local governments acquire public land.
Madison Audubon used Knowles-Nelson funds to protect more than 2,700 acres, including the approximately 700 acres Goose Pond Sanctuary in Arlington. Executive director Matt Reetz said future use limitations are key to securing matching funds.
“It gives people confidence that the conservation of this land is forever,” Reetz said. “You have that confidence.”
Conservation groups also warn that the bill could create a perverse incentive to use stewardship funds as low-interest financing for land speculation.
“If you have a park and you kept it 25 years ago and now the property is worth 25 times what it was…you can sell it to a developer,” he said. Carlin said.
The sponsors say they are simply trying to make it easier for grant recipients to get rid of land that no longer meets their needs – “something that is currently cumbersome and rarely approved,” said Senator Mary Felzkowski of Irma .
“No one is required to sell their stewardship lands,” Rep. Calvin Callahan, R-Tomahawk, said. “We’re just trying to make it easier for those who no longer need the land for their own conservation purposes.”
DNR estimates about 10 properties would be sold each year if the bill were passed.
DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye said the agency did not approve the sale of land purchased with Knowles-Nelson funds, but did approve some land swaps where the land was subject to a eminent domain or otherwise sold to a utility or state Department of Transportation.
Under the bill, a county or other landowner would simply have to notify the agency, repay the grant with interest, and keep the land open until it is sold.
In comments submitted to an Assembly committee last week, Felzkowski said her office had “received an influx” of calls from people concerned she was “gutting” the stewardship program.
“That’s incredibly far from the truth, and we’re extremely disappointed with these scare tactics,” said Felzkowski, who accused opponents of being more concerned with “protecting their business” than preserving healthy ecosystems.
Collin Driscoll, an aide to Felzkowksi, said the bill was drafted in response to a request from Langlade County, which is seeking to sell part of a former Boy Scout camp it bought about a year ago. five years with Knowles-Nelson funds.
County Administrator Jason Hilger said the council wanted the option to sell some of the 652 acres to fund improvements on the rest.
“I understand that some (people) may not like what we offer,” Hilger said. “Why can’t we sell a few lots to help develop the rest of the property?”
There are better ways to fix local budgets, said Wisconsin Trout Unlimited state board chairman Mike Kuhr. “The sale of public lands is a short-term solution, an economic band-aid that deprives future generations of their outdoor recreation rights and prevents the expansion of our sustainable outdoor recreation economy.
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