A flagship land conservation program in Wisconsin that was named after two political leaders with St. Croix River roots is running out of money. An initiative by environmental groups is urging the state legislature to fully authorize and fund the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
The fund provides grants to local nonprofits and communities to purchase land or conservation easements, permanently protecting many acres. In the St. Croix River watershed, the program has protected at least 5,400 acres since the program began in 1989.
Accomplishments in the St. Croix River region reach from the headwaters in Douglas County to its mouth at the Mississippi in Prescott. Projects include land acquisition to protect tributaries like the Kinnickinnic, Clam, and Yellow Rivers. Popular nature preserves and parks supported by Knowles-Nelson include Standing Cedars near Osceola, the Wert Preserve in St. Croix Falls, and the Ice Age Trail.
The program is named after Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson. Knowles, a Republican, was born in River Falls in 1908, got his start in politics serving on the St. Croix County board of supervisors in the 1930s, and went on to serve as the 36th governor of Wisconsin. Gaylord Nelson was born in Clear Lake, near the Willow River headwaters, in 1916, and served as Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator. Both were avid hunters, anglers, and outdoors lovers, and brought these values to their work.
In the Senate, Nelson championed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, pushing to include his beloved St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers. Meanwhile, Knowles led efforts to clean up pollution in Wisconsin rivers and streams, provided funds to expand recreational lands, and established the annual Governor’s Fishing Opener.” Knowles is commemorated with his name on the large Governor Knowles State Forest along the upper St. Croix River.
“While I recognize the need for global support for the environment, I have always thought that the slogan ‘Think Globally, Act Locally,’ is an important plan of action for everyone,” Knowles said.
Acting locally is a fundamental part of the Knowles-Nelson Fund. The grants must be matched with local fundraising and volunteer time.
Governor Tony Evers has included in his budget recommendation another 10 years of the program and increasing its funding to $70 million per year.
Some legislators believe the program has outlived its usefulness.
“The program is expensive, and there are diminishing returns because we’ve already bought up a lot of the really good parcels,” Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “At some point we need to ask ‘when is enough, enough?’ and ‘how do we target these funds more effectively on the few projects that maybe still make the most sense?’”
About 17 percent of Wisconsin has some level of protection, according to the coalition. That is less than neighbors in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and far short of the goal recently recommended by scientists to protect at least 30 percent of land across the United States to prevent species extinction and mitigate climate change.
Advocates also point out that the pandemic of the last year has shown how popular Wisconsin’s parks and public lands are, with state park pass purchases increasing by 42 percent last year.
A coalition of environmental and hunting/fishing groups is now encouraging the public to contact legislators in support of the program. Team Knowles Nelson includes Groundswell Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Gathering Waters, the Conservation Fund, Ice Age Trail Alliance, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Trout Unlimited, The Prairie Enthusiasts, The Nature Conservancy, and many other groups.
After a challenging process in 2019, the state of Wisconsin authorized Knowles-Nelson for only another two years, expiring this year. The groups say restoring budget cuts and giving the program a longer timeline are important.
“If the [Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program] is not renewed as part of the 2021 state budget, we will lose Wisconsin’s best source of funding for land and water protection as well as funding for the development and maintenance of community parks and open spaces.
“Planning and executing Stewardship projects can take years. Therefore, landowners, donors, nonprofits, and local governments need certainty about the long-term future of the program in order for projects to be as strategic and successful as possible. That’s why we’re asking for a 10-year authorization of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program as had been the tradition since the program’s inception in 1989.”
The group’s website includes a tool to send a postcard to legislators — allowing the public to upload their own photo of Wisconsin’s natural areas and a message, which Team Knowles Nelson will then print and distribute.