Wisconsin lawmakers approve public land buys for four more years


The state of Wisconsin is going to continue to buy land to make sure it never gets developed.

The Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee on Thursday agreed to extend the state’s stewardship program for four more years.

“This popular program is part of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and is utilized to purchase property and make improvements to public lands throughout the state,” state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, explained.

But the program, which borrows money to buy the land, is not popular with everyone.

Brett Healy, president at the MacIver Institute, said Wisconsin has spent over $1 billion on the stewardship program so far.

“From 2001-2021, Wisconsin has allocated $1,078,859,000 to debt service for the program. As of [last year], our state government owns 1,622,300 acres of public land,” Healy told The Center Square.

Healy said not only does the state pay for the land, he said the state then reimburses local governments for any property taxes they lose.

Organizers of the stewardship program, officially called the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, say it is crucial for the state to spend more money to buy more land.

“Stewardship has been a resounding success,” the stewardship’s coalition wrote to lawmakers last month. “Because of Knowles-Nelson, local governments and nonprofit groups receive state matching grants to purchase land or easements for forestry, conservation, and recreation. And we have a vital source of funding for the development and maintenance of our waterways, parks, and trail systems.”

Healy said stewardship has taken millions of acres of land off the tax rolls, and made government one of the biggest landowners in the state.

“Combined with county and federal government acquisitions, 5,946,900 acres of Wisconsin land are publicly owned. That's 17.16% of Wisconsin's total acreage,” Healy explained.

Healy said if it were up to the coalition, Wisconsin would never stop spending public money to buy land.

“There is never a discussion about the end game. When will government own enough property? The state just keeps buying and buying, with no end in sight or even discussed. Are we done once we hit 18% or 20%? How about 30%?,” Healy asked. “There is no cap on this program.”

The four year extension is just that, an extension. Gov. Tony Evers asked lawmakers for a 10-year extension. Marklein said lawmakers will “analyze its effectiveness and investments over the next several years.”

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