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1345, 08 Feb 15

Wisconsin Republicans Debate Stewardship Program

Walker is absolutely right on this one.

With his proposed 13-year moratorium on land conservation purchases, Gov. Scott Walker is charging straight into territory that Assembly Republicans staked out last October as off-limits.

Since 1990 the stewardship program has preserved parcels of wild land for parks, hunting and hiking, as well as timber operations that feed the state’s paper industry. But Walker says the state has borrowed too much money to finance the purchases as budgeted debt payments peak this year at more than $89.9 million.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, predicted support in his chamber for placing land purchases on hold. But in the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said it wasn’t acceptable.

The Stewardship Program is flawed in its conception. Think of it… it is a program whereby the state empowers a group of bureaucrats to go out and find land for the state to buy to “preserve” it. But the state borrows to make these purchases, thus driving up the state’s debt. And, to top it off, the land is then taken off the tax rolls, thus decreasing tax revenue for state state and local governments that depend on it, thus forcing higher property taxes on everyone else to make up the difference. All of this to the tune that now the state taxpayers are spending nearly $90 million PER YEAR on a mortgage for this property. And that figure goes up every year because the program is designed to buy more property every year whether it makes sense or not.

Walker is right to stop this program in its tracks. He should go a step further and look for what ill-advised purchases could be sold back into the private economy where they can produce tax revenue and reduce the state’s debt. After all, nearly one-fifth of Wisconsin’s land is already set aside for conservation. That is more than enough.

There are circumstances where it may make sense for the state to purchase private land in the name of conservation. These opportunities should be individually evaluated on the merits and the legislature should vote to appropriate the funds on an individual basis if they so choose. There is nothing stopping the legislature from doing that should the Stewardship Program be shelved. Some of them just think it is easier to outsource those decisions to an unelected bureaucracy.

There are few worse programs in government than one that is designed to create more debt for the purpose of taking property out of the private economy while further reducing the available taxable land. End it.


1345, 08 February 2015


  1. Dave

    If Teddy Roosevelt had shared your views on conservation we’d be enjoying the grand canyon from the Hyatt or Hilton perched on its edges and enjoying views of Yellowstone from hundreds of condos and hotels built on the land.

  2. Hello

    While President Roosevelt was a major proponent of the Grand Canyon becoming a national Park the bill that passed making it so was actually signed by President Woodrow Wilson. The bill to preserve Yellowstone was signed by President Grant well before Teddy was President. In either case both examples are of the system at work. Congress passed a bill and a Executive signed it. It makes sense that Wisconsin should operate the same way.

  3. Owen

    Pretty weak sauce, Dave. Nobody is saying that conservation is not a good thing. In fact, it is something on which almost everyone agrees. But how much is enough? 20% of Wisconsin? 40%? 90% At some point can we have a rational discussion about the appropriate level that balances conservation needs with economic, space, and other needs?

  4. old baldy


    I think you have the weak sauce in your pot. Do a little research on the Stewardship Fund process, what type of properties are purchased, and for what reason. Then take a look at the revenues derived from usage of those properties and apologize to your readers. FYI. There are all sorts of places to look up the positive fiscal impacts of a recreational property on local businesses. It isn’t hard work for a top notch investigative reporter like you.

  5. Wisconsinite

    How much is enough? That is a good question, Owen, but currently state land comprises approximately 4% of the total land area of the state (check out the stats on the DNR website). So I’ll be modest and say 20% is enough and when we reach that point we can put a moratorium on the Fund. Pretty much any argument one can make about having public libraries is applicable to maintaining good and abundant public lands.

  6. Wisconsinite

    ….and just to be perfectly clear about the statistics: 4% of WI is state owned, 5.5% is federal and 6.5% are county-owned (mostly county forests). So first of all, your 20% figure is incorrect. That last category, county forests are instructive. Back in the 1920s, decades of rapacious private clearcutting left the North Woods a stripped over wasteland. The slash from logging repeatedly fed huge destructive wildfires (Peshtigo, for example) and farms failed on the poor, infertile soil. These private lands were abandoned and went tax delinquent. So bad and widespread were the delinquencies that many local governments in the North Woods faced insolvency. The solution was to allow them to keep the lands as county forest. They eventually healed and became the most productive timberlands in the whole state, pouring millions into county coffers while offering hunting, recreation, camping and biodiversity on land that would otherwise have been ruined, abandoned and unproductive. Not quite the narrative the libertarians are peddling regarding public land. But like the university, libraries, public radio, etc, libertarians cannot bear to see, let alone allow to exist, examples of well-managed and well-loved institutions that serve the public interest and collective needs.

  7. old baldy


    Great post(s) ! The folks on the far right don’t seem to understand, or even attempt to understand the benefits to society as a whole that public lands provide. Your example of county forests is a great one, a success story for sure. But I need to confess, I am on the Forestry Committee in a county with a very profitable county forest. Annual timber sales revenues from our managed forest add $4-600000 to the county general fund.

    Local tourism promoters could take this discussion to the next level. Owen needs to do the research as to the tremendous benefits public property provides to local businesses. A state 50/50 cost share grant (part was Stewardship $$) helped acquire and develop a boat landing in my small town. Because of the great fishery in the area that small town is now host to a high dollar tournament with a nationally known sponsor every year that brings in upwards of $1 million a year to local Mom and Pop small businesses. I’m sure the small investment the state had in our landing has been repaid many times in sales taxes alone.

    Once again the current administration has shown they have no long term game plan. And Owen, by supporting those policies without giving them due consideration has not advance the discussion an iota.

  8. old baldy


    Should DOT be prohibited from acquiring and occupying more land for highways? No more airport expansions? Publicly owned arenas? Schools? Religious organizations and other non-profits don’t pay property tax either, no more of them as well?

  9. Hello

    No one light a match…… All these strawmen would burst into flames.

    Anyone care to debate this portion of Owen’s quote?

    There are circumstances where it may make sense for the state to purchase private land in the name of conservation. These opportunities should be individually evaluated on the merits and the legislature should vote to appropriate the funds on an individual basis if they so choose. There is nothing stopping the legislature from doing that should the Stewardship Program be shelved. Some of them just think it is easier to outsource those decisions to an unelected bureaucracy.

  10. Paul

    Do you have a point, Baldy, or are you trolling?

    Care to address the point I made, instead of a strawman argument?

  11. old baldy


    You and Owen don’t trust the ” unelected bureaucracy” to make the proper decisions for the state. So why would anyone trust the current crop of elected officials to make a decision of this nature and magnitude that would benefit the state as a whole as opposed to some special interest. Remember the Sportsmens United pushed by Suder and Gunderson?

  12. Owen

    And bureaucrats aren’t susceptible to special interests, personal biases, or corruption? At least with the elected officials their decisions are on the record and the voters can choose whether they like those decisions at the ballot box.

  13. old baldy


    What “unelected bureaucrat” gets a 6 figure campaign donation? What personal gain does a DNR grant specialist get by approving a 50/50 cost share grant for a park addition? You are seeing black choppers where none exist. But I guess you are basing your assumption that bureaucrats are susceptible to corruption on Walkers staff choices, no?

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