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Rising prices undercut land buys
Stewardship Fund is spending more for less, and letting hunters in
Laura Guyer says Dane County has 'spent considerable time...examining ways to responsibly expand hunting opportunities' on public land.
Laura Guyer says Dane County has 'spent considerable time...examining ways to responsibly expand hunting opportunities' on public land.

Environmentalists and conservationists hailed passage of the new state budget, which included a 40% increase in the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. Starting in 2011, the state will increase the amount it gives annually to the fund from $60 million to $86 million, for the next decade.

"We're very pleased with the $860 million [the 10-year total]," says George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary who now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. "It is a very substantial amount of funding, and will be able to purchase very substantial parcels of property."

Yet, with ever-escalating land prices, this budgeted amount isn't as large as it may seem. And tricky budgetary language over public access may prove contentious.

Since its inception in 1990, the Stewardship Fund has been used to buy or help buy (via matching grants) 493,000 acres of land, at a cost of some $533 million. About 90% of the purchased land is open to the public.

In 1990, the program was funded with $23.1 million. While the $86 million for 2011 is more than three times that amount, it represents less than half the actual buying power.

Last June, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that to match its 1990 buying power, the Stewardship Fund would need a $228 million annual budget in 2010. This is due mainly to surging land values, although inflation and rising incomes are also part of the equation.

Most of the Stewardship Fund land is forested. The Fiscal Bureau found that the market value of forest property has increased more than six-fold since 2006 and projected it would be nearly nine times as much by 2010.

Property values are skyrocketing in northern Wisconsin, where large blocks of forested lands are coming up for sale through timber and paper company divestments. In several Wisconsin counties - Iron, Oneida, Taylor and Vilas - values rose by more than 10% just between 2006 and 2007. Florence County was almost 9%, while seven other counties saw increases of 7% or higher.

Given these numbers, it's no surprise that Gov. Jim Doyle actually asked for $105 million a year in stewardship reauthorization funding. Assembly Republicans countered with a $25 million offer. Meyer says this was more or less a bargaining position for what the Republicans really wanted: virtually guaranteed public access, especially for hunting, on any lands purchased with stewardship monies.

Over the last several years, Dane and Waukesha counties purchased several tracts of land using 50-50 matching grants from the fund. Local ordinances prohibited the discharge of firearms, so public hunting with firearms was not allowed on these lands. That rankled sportsmen, who didn't like the precedent of using stewardship money for land where hunting wasn't allowed.

And so Assembly Republicans insisted in the budget that lands bought with stewardship money must provide public access for "nature-based outdoor activity," first and foremost hunting. The exceptions? If there is a public safety concern, a unique animal or plant community that must be protected, or to "accommodate usership patterns, as defined by rule by the [DNR]."

And that last part means what, exactly? No one seems to know.

"Does that mean making sure we're not having user conflicts on individual properties?" asks Vicki Elkin, stewardship campaign director for the Gathering Waters Conservancy in Madison. "Does it mean [some lands should accommodate] a specific recreation demand? There's a lot of gray area."

Pat Henderson, DNR deputy secretary, agrees on the need for clarification: "Obviously, that's an undefined term in the budget."

In early 2008, the DNR will begin assembling a citizen advisory group to write the actual rules by which future stewardship monies will be distributed. Says Henderson, "That will be one of our advisory group's main tasks: to help us understand what 'usership pattern' means."

The advisory group will include representatives of various recreational constituencies, not all of whom see eye-to-eye on access issues. Because of the budget, says Henderson, "the land is going to be presumed to be open for public access. Not necessarily just hunting, but public access." The group's task will be to decide what that means.

Henderson is optimistic: "Yes, it's always contentious when you're trying to define these terminologies and when you're trying to actually write down the current practice. But everybody coming into it is coming in with the same goals."

In recent years, Dane County has used Stewardship Fund money to help buy the 2.5-acre Patrick Marsh Natural Resource Area in Sun Prairie and the 57-acre Lower Mud Lake Natural Resource Area in the town of Dunn. Stewardship grants totaling over $1.8 million are pending for four other Dane County parcels, including the 245-acre Door Creek Wetlands Natural Resource Area in the towns of Dunn and Pleasant Springs, says Laura Guyer, a conservation fund manager for Dane County.

In October 2007, the Dane County Board amended county ordinances to allow for firearms hunting on county lands by designating these lands "wildlife areas." In these areas, gun hunting, as well as trapping and fishing, are allowed.

But the timing was "serendipitous, not intentional," says Guyer. "Our policies were not changed simply in response to the Assembly actions."

Dane County , she notes, has offered archery hunting permits on certain county park lands since 2002 and has "spent considerable time - prior to the Assembly action - examining ways to responsibly expand hunting opportunities."

Last month, Dane County also made the Dorn Creek/North Mendota Natural Resource Area in the town of Westport the county's first "wildlife area," and therefore open to public hunting and fishing. The county is now working on signs to this effect.

[The print version of this article at this point referred to a private nonprofit group opening some land to hunting. The group has challenged this statement, saying hunting had always been permitted. In the interest of accuracy, this statement is omitted here.]

...Stewardship funding means public access, especially hunting. Not that such access was lacking: Only about 5% of previous Stewardship Fund purchases were closed to hunting.

Proponents of land acquisition see it as a tradeoff they're willing to make.

"We have a very small window of opportunity to protect Wisconsin's last remaining wild lands, especially near urban areas," Elkin argues. "In fact, it's a race against the clock. If we fail to act now, the debate over who has access to these lands will be moot, and tensions between user groups will only intensify

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