Longtime state stewardship program facing uncertain future

Longtime state stewardship program facing uncertain future

LITTLE CHUTE, Wis. (WBAY) – Over the last 30 years, a state stewardship program has invested more than $1.2 billion in public land acquisition and nature-based infrastructure around the state.

The scenic Nelson Heritage Crossing over the Fox River connects Little Chute and Kaukauna.

It’s one of more than 1,500 projects around the state that have received grants from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program, founded in 1989 with a goal to preserve tracts of land for conservation and outdoor recreation.

“Bike paths, community parks, campgrounds, boat launches, you name it, if it helps you get outside and enjoy all the beautiful places that make Wisconsin special, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is what helps make that happen,” says Charlie Carlin, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Gathering Waters, Wisconsin’s alliance for land trust.

In the Fox Valley, that’s meant 170 projects totaling $18 million.

And it’s brought communities and donors together because the state grants are far from a free handout.

“It’s a win-win around the Knowles-Nelson funding because it’s a matching program, every dollar that goes in has to be matched by another community dollar,” says Stephanie Vrabec, Community Foundation for the Fox Valley board member.

Future funding though, could be in jeopardy.

After two decades of legislative renewal on a 10-year funding cycle of up to 70 million a year, the stewardship program was only extended for two years in the last budget, and some lawmakers are expressing concern about taxpayer dollars funding land and water conservation.

“The polling shows that over 90-percent of our citizens really appreciate these kinds of programs,” points out Tom Boldt, CEO of The Boldt Company, headquartered in Appleton.

Boldt says the program funds are vital to quality of lifestyle, and attracting and maintaining employees.

“Any type of investment in infrastructure and the types of assets that we have in this state are going to be beneficial and I think we’re in a time frame where people are wanting to look for places that are safe, that have access to nature,” says Boldt.

With lawmakers now debating the program’s future, and a decision on funding likely coming in the next month or so, those supporting Knowles-Nelson are urging citizens to call their elected officials.

They also point to the pandemic as just another reason the funding is critical.

“The people using these trails has been incredible, the families I see out a different parks and on these trail systems, just very important for our health and well-being in the area,” says Vrabec.

“We found that just in the basic work that nature does for us every day, cleaning air and water, protecting our communities from floods, giving us places to play and relax, that those Knowles-Nelson lands are returning more than $2 billion to Wisconsin every year and we think that’s pretty impressive,” adds Carlin.

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