Happy young boy and girl wearing sunglasses and fishing by a lake or pond in summer
Knowles Nelson Stewardship: We all benefit from the lands and waters protected by the Stewardship Program. © iStock/George Rudy

Stories in Wisconsin

Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program

Protecting our land, our water and our way of life.

For almost 30 years, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been a highly successful public-private partnership, protecting our lakes and streams, securing critical wildlife habitat and providing world-class recreation opportunities.

The Program has also proven to be a wise investment in advancing our state’s tourism and forest products industries, both of which are based on the long-term sustainable use of our precious natural resources.

Every 10 years, this vital program must be reauthorized. In the most recent state budget, the Stewardship Program was only extended through 2022, rather than for 10 years as has been the case in the past each time the program was up for reauthorization. Governor Evers is expected to convene a blue ribbon task force soon on the future of the Stewardship Program and ways to strengthen it for the benefit of Wisconsin’s irreplaceable lands and waters. The Nature Conservancy will be deeply engaged in that process.

There is no question that the Stewardship Program has accomplished great things, yet with expected increases in growth and development, more extreme weather events and greater demand for outdoor recreational opportunities, we need a strong, well-funded Stewardship Program now more than ever.

With grants from the Stewardship Program, The Nature Conservancy and its supporters have helped protect some of Wisconsin’s most outstanding lands and waters including Wild Rivers Legacy Forest in northeast Wisconsin, Lulu Lake in southeast Wisconsin, Mink River in Door County and Barneveld Prairie in the southwest.

We All Reap the Benefits of the Stewardship Program

Clean Water: The Stewardship Program keeps our waters clean by protecting the forests, wetlands and grasslands that filter out pollutants in runoff before they reach our lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Groundwater Protection: Some parts of Wisconsin are particularly important to the long-term health and security of our groundwater supply. As Wisconsin grows, protecting the lands that are essential to the replenishment of our groundwater will be critical to ensure a consistent supply of clean, safe water.

Flood Protection: Wisconsin has experienced major flood events more frequently in recent years, which have devastated communities, roads and other infrastructure. The Stewardship Program has helped cities like Milwaukee protect wetlands and forests along rivers upstream to store water and help reduce the risk of severe flooding downstream.

Recreation Economy: Each year, 2.9 million people participate in hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching in Wisconsin, contributing $3.9 billion to the state economy. Stewardship has protected hundreds of thousands of acres of land and hundreds of river miles for hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and other types of recreation.

Wildlife: Wisconsin’s northern forests, together with Michigan’s and Minnesota’s, are home to the highest diversity of breeding birds in North America. The Stewardship Program has helped protect large blocks of forest for birds, elk, bears, wolves and other wildlife that need room to roam.

Urban Outdoor Opportunities: Studies show that getting outdoors in nature is good for our health. The Stewardship Program must continue to provide outdoor opportunities near home for all Wisconsin residents, including more trails and parks for those living in cities and surrounding urban areas.

Working Lands: The Stewardship Program has protected more than 250,000 acres of working forest in northern Wisconsin, along with the forest jobs and products they provide. In the next 3 to 5 years, we will have the opportunity to protect an additional 125,000 acres of working forest and the Stewardship Program will allow us to take advantage of that opportunity.

Our Recommendations for Reauthorization

The Nature Conservancy played an important role in the creation of the Stewardship Program, and we have been one of its strongest champions and the biggest non-profit user of the program since its inception. We make the following recommendations to ensure that this vital program continues to work for Wisconsin today and for future generations.

1. Reauthorize the program and maintain its land purchasing power

With a rapidly closing window of opportunity to conserve special places due to increasing development and rising land prices, the Stewardship Program is more important than ever. In the past, the purchasing power of this important source of conservation funding has not kept up with the demand for natural and recreation lands. The Program should be reauthorized with robust funding.

2. Restore the wisconsin DNR’s role as strong partner

Changes to the Program over time have curbed the Wisconsin DNR’s ability to be a strong partner in land and water protection. The Program should increase the funding available to the Department to purchase land, give it more flexibility in how it protects land (use of direct acquisition vs. easements), and allow it to expand and purchase land outside project boundaries.

3. Maximize partnerships with land trusts and local units of government

Nonprofit organizations and local units of government have been invaluable partners in helping to meet the state’s conservation and recreation goals by matching grant funds with private and federal dollars, involving local communities in land conservation, and assuming management responsibility for land they protect. The overall allotment for grant monies to nonprofits and local units of government should each be increased to $10 million per year.

4. Restore the program’s flexibility

Joint Finance Committee review of Stewardship grants is vital to ensure the Program is working for the people of Wisconsin, but changes over time to the review process have resulted in more projects requiring review and long delays in grant awards. Changes should be made to improve the JFC review process including 1) increase the grant amount that triggers a review from $250,000 to $750,000 and 2) restore transparency to the review process when objections are raised so they can be resolved more quickly.

You Can Help

Over the years, there have been challenges to the program and its funding. With the help of supporters like you, we have fought to prevent funding cuts and ensure that the program was reauthorized each decade.

In the coming days and months, we will be communicating with Governor Evers, Wisconsin legislators and other outdoor recreation stakeholders to ensure that this critical land and water conservation program remains strong into the future. We can’t do it alone and will look to you for help. Please join us today by signing up below.