The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program
is an innovative state program that provides funding for land purchases for outdoor recreation and the protection of working forests, critical natural areas, wildlife habitat, and water quality in Wisconsin.
Named for two of Wisconsin's most respected former governors -- Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson -- the Stewardship Program has been a tremendous success over the past 20 years -- protecting over 500,000 acres of Wisconsin's most special places.
One great strength of the Stewardship Program is how it recognizes the power of partnerships. Not only does it fund state land purchases by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but it also provides 50% matching grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations to acquire land, effectively doubling the amount of money available for land protection. To date, Wisconsin's private land trusts have raised nearly $55 million to match the state's investment . In the process, they have leveraged an additional $75 million of conservation through donations from private landowners.
You can read personal accounts of speical places the Stewardship Program has protected in our publication, Stories of Stewardship (and if you'd like copies, let us know).
Our Successful 2007 Campaign
In the state budget debates in 2007, some lawmakers argued that the Stewardship Program was a luxury Wisconsin couldn't afford and proposed drastic cuts to the program. Gathering Waters Conservancy and several conservation partners led a grass roots campaign that delivered a resounding and certain message to lawmakers in Madison: land conservation and the Stewardship Program are essential to quality of life in Wisconsin.
Fortunately, after a hard-fought campaign, the Stewardship Program was finally reauthorized as part of the 2007 state budget and funding for the program was increased from $60 million to $86 million annually.
The 2007 budget process was one of the most contentious in state history, and legislators from both parties ultimately made some difficult compromises; however, the Stewardship Program prevailed as one of the few "winners" in a budget where numerous programs received significant if any funding increases.
While Gathering Waters provided much of the day-to-day coordination and ongoing leadership, our Stewardship Campaign was carried along by a groundswell of support from thousands of people and invaluable partnerships with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and our member land trusts across the state.
In one week alone, Gathering Waters helped to generate 1,800 calls from citizens to legislators. We also encouraged writers to submit more than 200 favorable Stewardship articles, 18 editorials and dozens of op-eds in Wisconsin newspapers, and we served as a hub of Stewardship-related information for land trusts, government agencies and citizens alike.
Stewardship in its Third Decade: Changing Times
While the Stewardship Program was reauthorized for another ten years, the legislature in it's 2007 action had no ability to tie the hands of a future governor or legislature. In 2011 and 2013, the legislature rolled back funding for the program but we are proud to say that program remains a significant investment tool in conserving the places that make Wisconsin a desirable place to live and work.
We are also pleased that while the overall program has been reduced, the legislature and Governor Walker have affirmed the value of the land trust grants program, a highly effective public-private partnership, by maintaining its funding at a $12 million annual level.
We will continue to advocate for a strong Stewardship program and solidify public support and expand public awareness. We will remind lawmakers and their constituents who are hiking, fishing, skiing, hunting, birding and picnicking on Wisconsin's gorgeous and unique landscapes that the Stewardship Program is a critical conservation tool for Wisconsin's communities and everyone who loves Wisconsin's special places.
photos courtesy of Bill Pielsticker