Gov. Evers Seeks to Make Conservation Project Approval Process Easier

Proposed changes to the Stewardship Program would decrease the Legislature’s power to anonymously halt conservation projects like the Pelican River Forest.

Governor Tony Evers is calling for changes to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to make it easier for conservation projects to receive grant funding by removing some existing hurdles in the program that often result in projects being stalled indefinitely.

These changes were introduced in the governor’s most recent budget proposal and include adjusting the requirements for review so that fewer projects need to go before the Joint Committee on Finance and requiring that any legislator on the committee that objects to a project do so publicly and not anonymously.

Gathering Waters’ Director of Strategic Initiatives, Charles Carlin, was interviewed by Wisconsin Public Radio about these issues in the Stewardship Program. Listen to the story here.

Currently, any grant that exceeds $250,000, or any project north of Highway 64 (which includes most of northern Wisconsin), goes to the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee for review. The committee has two weeks to review projects. During that time period, any legislator on the committee can anonymously object to a project.

According to Carlin, the budget proposal seeks to increase the review limit to $500,000 and make it so that legislators will no longer be able to anonymously object to a project.

“Even though state law is crystal clear that the Finance Committee is expected to hold hearings to discuss grants, that rarely ever happens. Unfortunately, the legislature has increasingly weaponized this ability to object to projects.”

Since 2014, there have been 43 projects held up by objections, and only 14 of those projects ever received a hearing.

Carlin mentioned the ongoing fight over the Pelican River Forest, which would conserve a total of 70,000 acres of forestland in northern Wisconsin. According to Carlin, there is a major misinformation campaign that is spreading false information about the project. One of these lies is that the project is a public land grab that will take the land off the tax rolls. This is not true; the Pelican River Forest is a private lands project that will be protected through conservation easements.

“Because we don’t have any public hearings about this, it makes it really difficult to set the record straight. Simply having that debate would bring us so much further along to being able to understand if there are legitimate concerns about a project.”

Even though there is widespread public support for the project, the Pelican River Forest remains unfunded. The legislature has failed to act. The Governor and DNR have not moved ahead with funding the project. Ask our leaders to fund Pelican River and reform the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

Featured image by John Carrel, 2022.

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