DNR Budget Merits Careful Review
By Senator Devin LeMahieu
Last month, Governor Walker introduced his 2015-17 biennial budget. Spanning over 1800 pages, the budget details funding levels for every state agency and program. Now that the budget has been introduced, the state legislature is reviewing and debating the provisions of the budget. Natural Resources is one specific area of the budget that many constituents have contacted me to express their concerns.
One major area of concern are the changes to both the Natural Resources Board and the Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection Board. Members of each board are appointed by the governor, approved by the State Senate, and serve six-year terms. Currently, the boards review policy issues and approve administrative rules. The budget would change their duties so that they would serve in an advisory role, stating that the boards create an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.
While I strongly believe in streamlining government, I am concerned that removing powers from citizen boards would eliminate a portion of the public’s input over natural resource and agricultural issues. Local farmers, sportsmen, and outdoors enthusiasts have also echoed those concerns to me. As the legislature continues their discussion on this issue, I hope that we can address these changes to the DNR and DATCAP boards.
Another main issue in the DNR Budget is the proposal to freeze new Stewardship Fund purchases until 2028. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has played an instrumental role in preserving land in our state. In the program's 24 years, Stewardship has helped acquire 600,000 acres of land for public recreation and use.
I personally understand and appreciate the importance of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program. As a Supervisor on the Sheboygan County Board, I voted to preserve Amsterdam Dunes in Sheboygan County with the understanding that state Stewardship dollars would be available to assist with the effort.
Unfortunately, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund currently faces significant financial hurdles. The state spent nearly $87 million on Stewardship debt service during the last fiscal year alone, a cost of $1.6 million per week. In addition, nearly 1 in 5 acres in Wisconsin is already owned by the federal, state or county government and is used for conservation. While we want to maintain and grow Wisconsin's strong sporting and recreational heritage, the Stewardship program and state land ownership must be balanced and sustainable.
It is important to note that the budget would still allow for some stewardship purchases. Local Assistance Grants, which provide a state match to local funds for acquisitions of local parks or conservation lands, would still be available to local governments. For example, the Amsterdam Dunes project was a collaborative effort with Sheboygan County and the DNR splitting the cost. Other grants for Motorized Stewardship (to develop ATV/UTV trails) and the Kettle Moraine Springs Fish Hatchery in Sheboygan County would also still continue.
The budget’s solution to the level of stewardship debt is to freeze new land purchases until the debt is reduced. I believe the DNR should take a look at how our current public land is being used. Public land that is not being utilized could be sold to private ownership to be put back on the tax rolls. More revenue would then be available to pay down our current debt and to fund new and potentially better Stewardship opportunities. A similar program is currently being utilized for vacant agricultural land. Now it’s up to the legislature to consider these options, and more, in an effort to balance conservation and fiscal responsibility.