Apr 04, 2011
Stewardship Program: State Budget Analysis
Here is our updated analysis of issues in the state budget proposal related to Stewardship Program:
1. Funding is proposed to remain at the currently authorized bonding level of $86 million a year.
- Position: Retain bonding authority at the currently authorized level of $86 million a year.
- Funding for the Stewardship Program is extremely important for Wisconsin’s economy, supporting our state’s $13 billion tourism, $22 billion forestry, and $4 billion hunting and fishing industries.
- There continues to be a great need for the program and there are numerous opportunities for protecting important properties throughout the state.
- 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.
- 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
2. The bill limits acquisitions to land in fee simple (complete ownership), with very few exceptions for conservation easements (e.g., forestry easements, easements for state trails, and the Ice Age Trail, etc.)
- Position: Delete Budget Section 848, which limits use of conservation easements
Conservation easements are an important and cost effective tool that should continue to be used by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and land trusts through the Stewardship Program.
- Conservation easement deals make up approximately 11% of Stewardship grants that have been awarded to land trusts.
- Conservation easements have been used in targeted ways to protect the best of the best natural resources.
The benefits of conservation easements are numerous and include:
- Only select property rights are acquired as part of conservation easement deal (e.g., developments rights, public access rights, etc.), which is less expensive than complete ownership;
- Properties protected by conservation easements stay on the local tax rolls and landowners continue to pay property taxes;
- Landowners continue to manage their own properties, therefore avoiding putting management responsibility onto state taxpayers.
The budget proposal prohibits use of most streambank access easements.
- Streambank access easements have been vital for providing public access along streams and protecting important water resources.
- In 2008, Trout Unlimited commissioned a study that showed that recreational angling in southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois generates $1.1 billion in annual economic benefit to the local economy. This economic activity is driven in large part because of the success of streambank easements in providing public access and protecting cold water fisheries in this area.
- Conservation easements are an important and cost effective tool that should continue to be used by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and land trusts through the Stewardship Program.
3. The bill eliminates payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) to local municipalities for land purchased by the DNR after the bill's effective date.
- Position: Delete Section 1749 of the state budget to reinstate PILT payments.
- This budget provision 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.
- PILT payments on all DNR Stewardship purchases from 1992 to present (over 350,000 acres) are $11 million annually ($7.5 million comes out of GPR and $4 million from SEG).
- The incremental cost of additional PILT payments for new purchases would not be significant over the next biennium.
4. The bill decreases the threshold for review by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee from $750,000 to $250,000.
- Position: Move the threshold for review by the Joint Finance Committee to $500,000
- This further delays an already onerous grants process – 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.
- With JFC review at $250,000 approximately 22% of projects could be subject to legislative oversight; with a review threshold of $500,000 approximately 11% of projects would be subject to legislative oversight.
5. The bill changes the public access requirements for Stewardship grants. Under current law, public access for nature-based outdoor activities (e.g., hunting, trapping, fishing, hiking and cross country skiing) can only be prohibited to protect public safety, protect a unique plant or animal community, or to accommodate usership patterns. The bill proposes removing the "usership patterns" exception, except in very narrow circumstances.
- Position: Maintain the requirements for public access on Stewardship properties that are currently on the books.
- This provision further reduces the flexibility of the Stewardship Program for communities through Wisconsin, especially in more urbanized 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.