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5/17/2011 10:12:00 AM
Walker's budget would rein in DNR's use of Stewardship fund
Annual bonding authority holds, but new restrictions would likely reduce spending

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal would keep annual Stewardship bonding authority at its current level, but, if the Legislature approves proposed policy changes to the program, the state will likely be spending a lot less in the future.

Environmentalists had braced for a cut in funding, but were largely relieved when the governor kept bonding authority at $86 million a year. That's the amount the state can borrow for Stewardship purposes by selling bonds. The authority was hiked in 2007 from $60 million a year to $86 million a year.

Still, that doesn't mean the state is going to be maxing out that $86-million a year credit line. In an interview with The Lakeland Times earlier this year, DNR secretary Cathy Stepp hinted at coming changes in the administration of the program, saying the agency would approach land purchases with a new attitude and an eye on the bottom line.

"It is important to reiterate the fact that Stewardship is just a credit card, and that the bill is coming in the mail," she said in the interview. "If my roof is leaking, I don't go out and get a loan to buy a second home without first fixing my leaky roof. So we have to do a better job of prioritizing where we spend the taxpayers' money, and taxpayers understand that when you pay off a credit card with another credit card and get another one to pay off that credit card, eventually you don't get any more credit cards.

"And that is where we are at today in Wisconsin," Stepp said. "We're broke. So we had better be really, really sharp and focused about when we buy properties - about when it is appropriate and when it's not."

The policy proposals

Beyond the change in attitude are major changes in policy that will surely reduce spending, as well as squelch criticism that the DNR has long used program criteria to shut down public access to state lands in contravention of legislative intent.

Among other things, the budget measure would end payments in lieu of taxes the DNR makes to local governments to compensate for lost property taxes when the state purchases land, thereby dropping it from the tax rolls. That's almost $12 million a year the state has been paying.

In return, because of that impact to local governments, those entities would now have to approve a nonbinding resolution either supporting or opposing the land buy. The agency would have to consider that vote before finalizing a purchase.

In addition, the DNR would have to buy land outright rather than purchasing development rights, and the purchase of conservation easements would likewise be curtailed.

In its Acquisition of Development Rights Program, the agency purchases the rights of a landowner to develop his or her property. The agency effectively compensates the landowners for limited future development of their land; 10 percent of the Stewardship local assistance program has been set aside for development-rights purchases, according to DNR documents.

Critics of conservation easements and development-rights purchases argue that ceding land management rights to government not only decapitalizes land but ultimately halts all use of the property because government managers use the easement terms - the right to restrict use or development based on protection of sensitive habitat, for example - to expand restrictions on the land's use ever further.

Because many landowners are less willing to sell property outright, and because the DNR cannot afford to buy entire properties and often opt for easements or development-rights purchases instead, the policy change would likely suppress DNR Stewardship spending, as well as reduce the growth in the amount of land under state control.

Easements would still be allowed for logging, for accessing adjacent publicly-owned land, for state trails and for the Ice Age Trail. Conservation easements compose more than 10 percent of Stewardship grants awarded to land trusts.

Another major change would require public access to all Stewardship purchased lands except in the most narrow instances.

Under current law, public access for nature-based outdoor activities - hunting, trapping, fishing, hiking and cross country skiing - can be prohibited to safeguard public safety, protect a unique plant or animal community, or to accommodate usership patterns.

The governor's proposal removes the agency's ability to restrict public access to accommodate usership patterns, except to protect an existing pattern on a trail.

That would narrow the exception exponentially; critics have complained the agency has used "usership patterns" to conjecture about about user conflicts and impacts that didn't exist and to shape use according to staff wishes.

For example, in an interim protocol adopted by the NRB in January 2008 for DNR staff to use for grant projects until an administrative rule was adopted, agency staff was empowered to determine whether a proposed activity would accommodate usership patterns, or would "alter or significantly curtail a primary recreational use of the property," or interfere with land management activities necessary to preserve, enhance, and restore the conservation values protected in the project.

Indeed, last June, then state Rep. Scott Gunderson - who is now DNR executive assistant - called for a public hearing on a proposed DNR access rule, expressing concern it would be written in a way that subverted the Legislature's intent to keep Stewardship lands open for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities.

In another budget recommendation, the governor also wants to require at least two appraisals for all stewardship grants, and, finally, Walker is proposing increased legislative oversight of state land purchases. The budget measure would lower the threshold for legislative review of DNR acquisitions to $250,000. Right now, only purchases of $750,000 or more are subject to legislative scrutiny

Stepping up for Stewardship

In her testimony before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee after the governor released his proposal, DNR secretary Cathy Stepp said the budget proposals would make common-sense adjustments to the program but confirmed the governor's support of it.

"Make no mistake about it, Governor Walker does support Stewardship," Stepp said. "We believe these enhancements to the program will assure its viability for years to come. ... The Governor has kept Stewardship bonding at $86 million, recognizing that in Wisconsin we value our public lands for recreation, for preserving rare ecosystems, and for providing a strong foundation for our huge tourism and forestry industries."

That said, Stepp observed, public lands are not free.

For one thing, she said, the $12 million in annual payments to local governments were simply not sustainable in an era of crimped budgets. The governor's proposals, she said, were designed for the cost of public land to be shared by the state and local municipalities.

"State government will not make payments in lieu of taxes on land acquired from this point forward," she said. "Recognizing that local governments benefit from public land, they will be responsible for the taxes on land they want added to public ownership. And because they will have that financial responsibility, they will be able to weigh in on proposed acquisitions with non-binding resolutions of support or opposition."

Environmental critique

Environmentalists have a different take on the proposals, though they have largely breathed a sigh of relief that bonding authority itself remained intact.

In an April 4 budget analysis on its website, for example, the Gathering Waters Conservancy critiqued a number of the proposed changes, saying the popular program was a win-win for the environment and taxpayers.

"Stewardship debt service works out to approximately $10 per Wisconsinite per year, and reducing funding for the program by as much as 30% would only save on average $3 per Wisconsinite per year over the next decade," the analysis stated. "Stewardship is an example of government efficiency. Through grants to land trusts and local governments, Stewardship dollars are leveraged many times over with local funds, federal grants and private contributions."

The group took issue with proposed restrictions on easement purchases and an end to the purchase of development rights. Conservation easements are less expensive than complete ownership, the group asserted, while properties protected by easements stay on the local tax rolls.

In addition, the conservancy asserted, eliminating payments in lieu of taxes to local municipalities for land purchased by the DNR "sets up potential conflicts between the DNR and local communities, places the burden of a state investment squarely on the shoulders of local communities, and threatens to undermine the Stewardship Program."

The group was not fond of increased legislative oversight of land purchases, either.

"This further delays an already onerous grants process," the analysis stated. "Stewardship grants currently can take over 54 weeks to complete with all of the red tape involved, and this could add additional weeks to the process."

At the proposed $250,000 trigger for legislative review, the analysis continued, approximately 22 percent of all projects could be subject to legislative oversight.

Finally, the group asserted that changes in access requirements would reduce program flexibility, especially in urban areas.

"This change would prevent the DNR from considering the complexity, feasibility, size and shape of potential Stewardship purchases in determining whether certain nature-based outdoor activities should be restricted or prohibited," the group argued.

Nearly 500,000 acres have been purchased through the Stewardship Program, according to the governor's budget documents. Expenditures related to debt service on Stewardship purchases totaled more than $50 million in 2008-09, paid from both the general fund and conservation fund.

Richard Moore may be reached at rmmoore1@frontier.com.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2011
Article comment by: John Kriewaldt

This action is long overdue. Government already owns ample land in this state and in this country. Every acre taken off the tax rolls put a higher tax bill on the remaining acreage in the town/county/state. I don't know where this notion started that government should start buying up private property and removing it from the tax rolls, but it is about time that it come to a halt. One question the Lefties won't answer is "How much is enough?? What is the end game? What percentage of the state do you want government to own and to control and the remaining property owners to pay for? 40%? 50%? 75%?" Thank goodness we finally have some adults in Madison making right decisions!

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