Proposed Stewardship Fund Freeze Sends Chill Through Wisconsin Land Conservation Community

Feb 6, 2015

Natural meets urban at "downstream" end of the Milwaukee River Greenway. State stewardship funds helped make it possible.
Credit S Bence

Land trust supporters sounded the alarm as Gov. Walker released his budget. It calls for a moratorium on the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

The freeze would be in effect until 2028.

The stewardship program was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1989 to preserve valuable natural areas and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation by acquiring land and easements. 

According to the Department of Natural Resources' website:

The general land acquisition component of the Stewardship Program is the backbone of Wisconsin's public lands program. It provides the funds for all Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources land acquisition not funded specifically by other Stewardship Program components. This mandate is extensive and includes acquisition in 547 existing state parks and trails, flowages, fishery, wildlife, state forest, and rivers projects.

Gathering Waters, an alliance of land trusts around the state, points to the Ice Age Trail as an example of the Stewardship Fund at work. The group says the trail is not only converses important land, but also fuels the economy. According to Gathering Waters' website, in 2012, the trail attracted 1,252,685 visitors annually, while supporting 1,481 full-time equivalent jobs in the tourism industry and driving $113,961,357 in annual direct sales to statewide and local economies.

In Milwaukee, the River Revitalization Foundation partners with local groups to restore natural habitats that can be enjoyed in an urban setting.

Aaron Zeleske oversees the expansive Greenway project along the Milwaukee River. It starts at the North Avenue Dam and runs upstream to Silver Spring Drive; covers over 800 acres. The goal is to establish a trail system up and down its course. 

“Eighty percent is owned by Milwaukee County, so we work closely with them. There’s private land in between. So what we’re trying to do now is connect trails in between, getting easements with private landowners,” Zeleske says.

He says the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been instrumental to the greenway’s restoration. “The stewardship fund provides a 50 percent match for land acquisitions – for buying it or getting an easement. Here on the River it’s been used in a lot of the projects,” Zeleske says. 

That includes the Beerline Trail on the west side of the Milwaukee River. It’s a paved biking and walking trail. 

“It takes you from Riverboat Road up to Locust. People in the neighborhood use it all the time and I’m sure they don’t know that this state program is what made that possible,” Zeleske says. 

On the east side of the river, the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum, adjacent to the Urban Ecology Center, provides easy access to reawakened habitat and the river below. 

“Paved trails in the Arboretum allow somebody to get down to the river in a wheelchair for the first time, pretty much ever,” Zeleske says. 

It provides 40 acres of natural experience in an urban setting. Zeleske add, “what made that tick was the Stewardship Fund that our deceased partner Pieter Godfrey. He wanted to donate land and knew that by donating it he could get leverage with the state to get this grant to have even greater impact.” 

Another state grant is slated to be slashed under Gov. Walker’s proposed budget. Zeleske says it’s called a capacity grant, “which enable organizations like us to function – pay the bills and do the work that we do. We’ve gotten one five of the last six years, and it could just disappear.” 

Land trust groups are worried about another element of the budget regarding the Natural Resources Board.  The budget states:  "The Governor recommends eliminating the rule-making and policymaking powers currently vested with the Natural Resources Board and converting the board to an advisory council."

River Revitalization Foundation executive director Kimberly Gleffe says currently the board weighs in heavily on every proposed stewardship grant. 

“By taking away that expertise, experience – different lenses from geography and background – it renders them powerless. And then we don’t have advocates on the board to move our grants forward, to protect places,” Gleffe says. 

She worries about impacts across Wisconsin. “This is a state that cherishes its outdoors, and the northwoods and the parks in our cities, and our greenways and trails and recreational opportunities – and it’s being endangered.”