A Wisconsin program that has protected more than 500,000 acres of land for public use in the past 26 years – including important tracts along the St. Croix River — was inspired by and named after two state stewardship stalwarts with roots in St. Croix River Country. But the program could end this year, based on a budget proposal by Governor Scott Walker.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund provides grants to purchase land around the state. It takes its name from Governor Warren P. Knowles, a Republican governor who served from 1965 to 1971, and Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat who served as governor from 1958 to 1962 and as U.S. Senator from 1963 to 1981. Knowles was born in New Richmond (along the Willow River), while Nelson was born in Clear Lake, near the Apple River.
Knowles’ name also adorns the 32,500-acre Governor Knowles State Forest along the St. Croix near Grantsburg (which I explored and wrote about last March), and Nelson worked with Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale to pass the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, including the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers.
This legacy of stewardship from two sons of the St. Croix River is in danger of coming to an end in 2015. Governor Walker’s budget proposal would remove all funding for the program until 2028.
The fund has had a profound impact on public lands along the St. Croix River. Most lands acquired with assistance from the program are open to many activities, including hiking, skiing, hunting, fishing, and trapping. It costs every resident of Wisconsin about $15 per year.
“The Stewardship Program costs each resident in Wisconsin less per year than a fishing license or a state park sticker,” Mike Strigel, executive director of Gathering Waters, an alliance of Wisconsin Land Trusts, said in a statement.
St. Croix 360 partnered with Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy in Osceola for three guided hikes in 2014, when walkers enjoyed exploring its lands on the banks and bluffs of the river.
In a Facebook post, conservancy president Steve Rassler wrote that 50 percent or more of its land was acquired with Knowles Nelson Funds, and “every single acre” it manages is connected to the program somehow. The group also said without the funding, its popular Englewood property “would likely be filled with houses by now.”
“Defunding Knowles-Nelson would not affect the status of land we already have,” Rassler wrote. “But there are more conservation opportunities in our area, undeveloped lands which could be added to our holdings and opened to public uses, including hunting. We’re in purchase discussions with a few landowners right now. But without the Knowles-Nelson Program to provide partial funding, these purchase opportunities could be put out of our financial reach.”
This wild tributary of the Namekagon benefitted from Knowles Nelson in 2013 when 259 acres, and 2.5 miles of shoreline, were protected thanks to funding from the program.
As reported in a popular St. Croix 360 post, the acquisition was adjacent to another parcel of public property, creating a 3.5-mile stretch of river of public land. “Through its protection, this property will conserve water quality, preserve an astoundingly beautiful stretch of undeveloped river, and provide permanent public access for recreation including hunting, fishing, trapping, cross country skiing and paddling,” the St. Croix River Association said in its newsletter.
At the time, State Representative Nick Milroy recalled canoeing on the river, “It’s truly one of the few wild places left in Wisconsin. There’s abundant wildlife there as there’s little pressure on them. You see otters, merganser ducks, and it’s a great smallmouth bass fishery.”
The Totogatic is one of five Wild Rivers designated in Wisconsin. It’s a paddler’s paradise, from the tight, twisting turns to the sandy banks – and to the undeveloped public land on its shores.
Straight Lake State Park
Wisconsin’s newest state park is located near Luck, in Polk County. It was purchased in 2005 and development of the park just began last year. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail runs through the park, following the shores of Straight Lake and the Straight River (more about the Ice Age Trail below). The Straight River features a unique glacial formation called a channel tunnel, with a high ridge running down the middle of its valley, formed by water flowing under a glacier.
“It contains everything you could want to see in this part of the state. This is a gem. And there was a lot of interest in this land,” DNR Parks and Recreation Bureau Director Dan Schuller said in 2012.
I hiked the trail back in November, 2013, enjoying how it followed a historic road for part of its course:
As we walked along the north shore of the lake, the narrow path soon joined the historic Clam Falls Trail, a historic road which once carried settlers and loggers from St. Croix Falls to Cumberland. According to the Luck Historical Society, one story of how the town got its name is that travelers on the trail were said to be “in Luck” if they made it there in one day from St. Croix Falls. From there, they would have followed the trail, including the section we now trod on, to Cumberland and Spooner, many of them looking for jobs in the logging camps and mills.
The park is 2,700 acres, and had been eyed by developers before the state purchased it. Its development plan calls for camping, hiking, and fishing in a rustic environment, with lots of solitude.
There are 450 acres of preserved land right in the city of St. Croix Falls. The Wert Family Nature Preserve was purchased with Knowles-Nelson funds in 2010. The park features 400 feet in elevation and about six miles of trails, and it adjoins the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The Ice Age Trail runs through the preserve near its terminus at the St. Croix River. The 1,000-mile trail crosses Wisconsin, roughly following the outline of the most recent glacier. The Ice Age Trail Alliance reports that the Knowles Nelson Fund has been used 55 times to protect more than 3,300 acres along the trail. With 500 miles of trail remaining to be acquired and constructed, ending the funding could seriously delay the trail’s completion.
Gathering Waters, the statewide land trust group, provides a list of 10 ways to speak up about the Knowles Nelson Fund.
Thank you to Ryan Rodgers for sharing his wonderful photos for this article.