Stewardship’s value, risks

Letters to the Editor from the Tomahawk Leader.
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Stewardship’s value, risks

Postby Tomahawk Leader » Mon Mar 19, 2007 6:15 pm

Submitted by Rep. Don Friske for the Forestry Products Section in the March 20 Tomahawk Leader:

The following is a letter to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board Stewardship Committee from State Rep. Don Friske, 35th Assembly District and chairman of the Assembly Committee on Forestry:

The Nelson-Knowles Stewardship program is a valuable program. I believe it should be reauthorized for fiscal years 2011-2020. As chairman of the Wisconsin State Assembly Committee on Forestry, I think stewardship plays an integral role in our ability to provide increased recreation and forest management opportunities throughout Wisconsin.

I am concerned, though, with the ability of the state to pay for and manage the land it has acquired and the land it plans to acquire. As you move forward in making recommendations on changes to stewardship, I hope you will keep the following facts in mind:

Stewardship Credit Card and Credit Limit
•This program is based on bonding, as far as the average citizen is concerned, a form of credit card spending

•The total program credit limit, originally $231 million in 1990, raised to $803 million in 2001, is now being proposed by Gov. Doyle to increase to $1.85 billion

•The annual credit limit, originally $25 million/year, raised to $60 million/year in 2001, is now being proposed by Gov. Doyle to increase to $105 million/year

•In 2011, the annual repayments of debt will actually exceed the current annual credit limit of $60 million, more than $1 million a week regardless of new purchases
2007 Budget Repair Bill

•In 2005, Gov. Doyle proposed and the Legislature approved designating the Forestry Account’s $27.5 million as an ongoing appropriation to help pay for repaying debts incurred using stewardship bonds (credit debt)

•On Feb. 1, the Department of Administration announced the state was short $100 million

•On Feb. 13, Gov. Doyle proposed using $7 million from the Forestry Account of the Conservation Fund, in addition to the $27.6 million earmarked in July 2005, to pay for stewardship debt repayment

•The governor and Legislature will need to find a way to prevent the $100 million hole from reoccurring in the 2007-09 budget this session, let alone how to pay for the newly proposed $105 million annual credit limit
Land Acquisition Goals

•From 1990 through 2006, Wisconsin has acquired 360,000 acres in land or easements (21,000 acres/year)

•According to DNR, it is currently acquiring “well over 30,000 acres per year”

•The Natural Resources Board has identified 500,000 acres remaining just to block in existing state DNR property

•It will take 17 years just to block in existing properties, at the rate of 30,000 acres/year

•In 1998, DNR identified 377,000 acres for acquisition, 221,000 acres (60 percent) have been acquired for $229 million

•156,000 acres remain from 1998’s original goal for acquisition

Management capability
•By increasing the Forestry Funds used to pay for stewardship debt service, available funds to pay for existing management needs has decreased

•According to DNR, properties throughout the state are failing to be managed as intended due in part to: Increasing workload due to growing land acquisitions and priority public services like fire suppression; master planning delays; incomplete reconnaissance information on forested properties; unfilled DNR employment vacancies
Cost to other programs

•When state funds are tied up paying off debt, the state is limited in its ability to use funds to pay for services the public expects to be met, regardless of land acquisition priorities

•Dramatically increasing stewardship credit limit will encourage the department, governors and legislators to further rely on the Forestry Account, the only statewide property tax, to purchase more timberlands without a DNR workforce in place to properly manage old acquisitions, let alone new

•Chapter 28.04 of the Wisconsin State Statutes states (emphasis added):
**“The department shall manage the state forests to benefit the present and future generations of residents of this state, recognizing that the state forests contribute to local and statewide economies and to a healthy natural environment. The department shall assure the practice of sustainable forestry and use it to assure that state forests can provide a full range of benefits for present and future generations. The department shall also assure that the management of state forests is consistent with the ecological capability of the state forest land and with the long–term maintenance of sustainable forest communities and ecosystems. These benefits include soil protection, public hunting, protection of water quality, production of recurring forest products, outdoor recreation, native biological diversity, aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, and aesthetics. The range of benefits provided by the department in each state forest shall reflect its unique character and position in the regional landscape.”

Credit vs. cash
•The long term cost of using credit will pose a long-term cost to the state of Wisconsin both in terms of the interest to be paid out and the costs derived from Wisconsin’s lowered bond (credit) rating

•As with individuals, debt-income ratios are an extremely important component to the ratings issued by America’s bond rating agencies

•Wisconsin’s bond rating from Moody’s was downgraded in 2001 to Aa3 with a negative outlook, a reflection of our financial policies, in our case Wisconsin’s lack of liquidity and ability to make payments on time

•Our ability to pay our bills on time, especially to local governments, is hampered by the increasing amount of General Purpose Revenue (sales and income taxes) being used to pay off stewardship debt

Weighing Testimony
•Most organizations that will submit testimony have at one time or another accessed stewardship dollars for projects by their organization

•You will receive a lot of testimony between now and the next reauthorization of the Stewardship Program

•Every testimonial presented to you comes from someone with an interest in the final outcome and should be weighted by the Subcommittee in perspective of how they benefit from reauthorization

As the representative of the 35th Assembly District and the chairman of the Wisconsin State Assembly Committee on Forestry, I respectfully ask you to consider the following ideas:

•The Nelson-Knowles Stewardship program should be reauthorized, with legislative oversight

•Ensure new bonding levels honestly reflect taxpayer ability to pay for new land acquisitions and local projects

•Ensure land or easements proportionally acquired by DNR with forestry account funds be managed per Chapter 28.04 of the State Statutes

•Ensure non-forested land or easements are proportionally acquired by DNR with non-forestry account funds

•Prioritize blocking in existing state properties over properties not located within existing properties

•Prioritize properties that increase, not decrease, DNR’s ability to properly manage its entire land base

•Increase the number of acres acquired through easements to private lands for public access with public taxation over taking land off of the tax rolls for the same purpose

•Reduce purchases using bonding credit and increase cash used in order to reduce long term costs, GPR payment delays and improve Wisconsin’s current fiscal condition

•Appropriately weigh all testimony in the light of how they will benefit environmentally, fiscally, politically, monetarily and socially

`Wisconsin needs to prioritize its finances, within and around its wide range of programs, to meet the immediate needs of its citizens. As you move forward in making suggested changes to this valuable program, I hope your recommendations will take into consideration 1) the ability of the state to pay all its bills on time and 2) continue to make both public access to and private ownership of land a reality for all of Wisconsin’s families.

Respectfully yours,
Donald R Friske
35th Assembly District
Wisconsin State Assembly Committee on Forestry, Chair

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