Republicans on the legislature’s budget committee have moved to restrain a popular land conservation program. They say the action is necessary in light of the state’s long-term debt obligations, and that they are preserving the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program for the future. “The $90 million of debt service each year . . . is unsustainable,” said Joint Finance Committee co-chair, Senator Alberta Darling. “What we want to do is make the Stewardship program sustainable.”
Minority Democrats on the budget panel charged Republicans are gutting the program. “This is a radical departure from the agreements we’ve seen in Stewardship in the past, and really questions whether or not the program is going to be able to function,” charged Representative Cory Mason of Racine.
Sheboygan Republican Senator Joe Liebham said the debt service on Stewardship purchases is now about $1.6 million a week. “Every month I meet with different sportsmen and conservation groups in Sheboygan and Manitowoc County, and they are strong supporters of the Stewardship program,” said Liebham, who authored the GOP budget motion along with Representative Dan LeMahieu of Cascade. “But when you share with them the facts, as to what’s happened with this program with debt service, they shake their heads. They’re smart people. They understand that you can’t have a program that’s that imbalanced.”
If included in the final state budget and signed into law, the GOP proposal would reduce Stewardship bonding in this budget biennium, and sets lower limits through 2020, amounting to a cut of some $63.5 million. It also directs the DNR to list some 10,000 acres for sale by 2017, a provision which rankled Senator Bob Wirch of Kenosha. “Looking at this Joint Finance Committee, I would guess that probably less than half of them really hunt and fish on a regular basis, yet you’re making habitat decisions that are going to directly affect sportsmen,” Wirch said. “These decisions should be made by the DNR board.”
“My guess is there probably not too many people in this building that are going to say “Dan, thank you for bring that motion forward, because that’s just exactly what I wanted,”” said LeMahieu, who co-authored the Stewardship plan with Liebham. “Some people that have been in politics a lot longer than me have said that when you put a proposal out there and nobody likes it, you probably did a good job.”
“Sometimes it might be that when one sides tells you they don’t like it and the other side tells you they don’t like it, you might have gotten it just right,” said Mason. “But it might be that if both sides are telling you they don’t like it, there might be things that are substantially wrong with your proposal.”
“This is a slap in the face of the small business owners who depend on the Stewardship Program to sustain Wisconsin’s $13 billion tourism industry. And it’s a dismissal of Wisconsin outdoorsmen and women who depend on Stewardship lands to have access to quality hunting and fishing opportunities,” said Anne Sayers, Program Director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, in a statement released after Wednesday’s 12-4 finance committee vote.