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Wausau Daily Herald Sat, May 31, 2003
Land stewardship should not be a partisan issue
In a recent editorial, the Wausau Daily Herald correctly criticized actions taken by the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, which directed the Department of Natural Resources to sell unspecified land for $40 million. That action was criticized as being both foolish and illegal.
In its efforts to solve an admittedly difficult and massive budget shortfall, the committee has made another error that, though legal, is even more foolish and shortsighted. I refer to the eviscerating of the state Stewardship Fund. The Joint Finance Committee now is controlled by Republicans. I write as a totally bewildered and embarrassed Republican and a former member of that committee. I was a member of the state Senate when the Stewardship Fund was created in 1989 to protect recreational land and wildlife habitat and to expand and create state parks, forests parcels and other natural areas. Since its inception, the Stewardship Fund has helped preserve more than 225,000 acres of precious land in all but one of Wisconsin's 72 counties. The Stewardship Fund has benefited our part of the state in many ways. It helped to preserve 1,485 acres of the Bill Cross Rapids area in Lincoln County which protected 3.5 miles of undeveloped Wisconsin River land. It facilitated the easement purchase of more than 35,000 acres in Marathon, Lincoln, Oneida and Iron counties. And it helped to protect tens of thousands of waterfront acres along the Willow and the Turtle-Flambeau flowages. These Stewardship successes are among the scores of projects that help make Wisconsin such a great place to live and visit.
Environmental protection, especially the stewardship of our land, should not be a partisan issue. And historically, the Stewardship Program has not been. The popular program was supported in such a strong bipartisan manner that under Gov. Tommy Thompson it was renamed the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund after Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson and Republican Gov. Warren Knowles. Unfortunately, this budget session, only one Republican, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, voted against the motion to gut the fund, which suggested cutting the program from $60 million a year to $15 million in the first and to $10 million in the second of the two-year budget period. Total cuts for the next seven years amount to a shocking $245 million.
Does the action help solve the budget crisis? Not really, according to George Meyer, former DNR Secretary and now head of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and chairman of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Because it is a bonded program, Meyer feels that the service costs are a pittance: About one-hundredth of a nickel out of every tax dollar.
Is the committee concerned about Wisconsin's bonded indebtedness? Not really, since they voted to increase bonding for highway construction only a week later. Indeed there are dozens of conservation and environmental groups who are outraged by the committee's actions. At least 16 state newspapers have editorialized about the lack of wisdom shown by the committee in its drastic fiscal move. Not to mention the thousands of citizens across the state who are up in arms over the decision. Is there any political or practical advantage for Republicans to cast themselves in such an anti-environmental light? Republican Sen. Mike Ellis has openly castigated the Stewardship cuts. He questioned the Republican leaders about whether the committee really understood the harmful effects of the motion.
Sen. Mary Panzer, the majority leader, is on record as saying she doesn't believe there should be any cuts in the Stewardship Fund. Let's hope that she and Sens. Ellis and Harsdorf can persuade their Republican colleagues to reverse the Joint Finance Committee's action and eliminate the cuts to Wisconsin's bipartisan, environmentally sound Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. Walter John Chilsen served as a Republican state senator from 1966-1990. He is now a board member of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and is a supervisor for the town of Weston.
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