RHINELANDER, WISCONSIN - Northwoods counties have bought thousands of acres of land through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. The land has been used for outdoor recreation and environmental protection. Outdoor enthusiasts, forestry officials, and state representatives alike are anxious to see if Governor Evers' upcoming budget proposal will include funding for a stewardship program that's 30 years old.
Al Jozwiak is the vice president of RASTA, A Rhinelander-based silent sports group that maintains trails for skiing, fat biking, and snowshoeing. He helped organize building the Judy Swank Center, a hub for folks exploring the Washburn Lake Trail System. The center is just one example of the state stewardship program's impact.
"It was a matching grant so we had to do some fundraising but it probably would've been out of reach without it," said Jozwiak.
The Knowles-Nelson stewardship program was created to acquire land for expanding nature-based recreational opportunities and protecting environmentally sensitive areas. Knowles-Nelson is leveraged by nonprofits such as RASTA, as well as state and county governments.
Oneida County ranks number 1 of Wisconsin counties for total money spent since the creation of the stewardship program in 1989. The most recent purchase was the Twin Lakes Acquisition in October of 2018. It was estimated to cost a million dollars, but through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program it only cost the county less than a third, with additional revenue expected from harvesting timber. Oneida County Forest Administrator John Bilogan said only through Knowles-Nelson was this acquisition possible.
"I know for a fact that Oneida County wouldn't have pursued this if it wasn't thirty cents on a dollar basically for us," said Bilogan.
During Governor Walker's administration, funding for the stewardship program was nearly cut in half. It remains to be seen how much funding Governor Evers will include in his budget.
In Iron county, state DNR officials will ask their board on February 27th for permission to spend nearly 5 million dollars to acquire a new property. It would be funded entirely through the stewardship program.
State senator Janet Bewley (D - Mason) represents the county and is on-board for the acquisition.
"I think it's a great idea I'm all for it," said Bewley.
Bewley said that the area is worth preserving partly because of its environmentally-sensitive wetlands. Marshes and swamps contain rich biodiversity and help mitigate flooding after heavy rains. Wetlands also don't have great development potential, so lost revenue to the county and state due to estate taxes is minimal.
"Not to mention the ability of people to access it for recreation and hunting," added Bewley.
Jozwiak said he hopes Evers increases funding for the Knowles-Nelson program. He added that grants like the one for the Judy Swank Center help the local economy, especially for a place like Rhinelander.
"It's a small community and you don't have unlimited funds to do things like and it helps tourism, not only local people but the tourism economy as well."
If Jozwiak and RASTA get more funding from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, they will use it at the Hill Creek Property near Rhinelander. Their plan is to improve outdoor recreation there, most notably, the mountain biking trails.