10,000 acres preserved, despite GOP resistance

Wisconsin is blessed with a vibrant land trust movement, and Washington County is particularly blessed as the home to two of the best land trusts of the more than 40 in the state.

That was highlighted Thursday when Tom Stolp (left), executive director of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT), was honored as the Wisconsin 2023 Land Trust Professional of the Year Award. It’s noteworthy, because there are lots of excellent land trusts in the state and professionals who lead their work.

Stolp was singled out for his exemplary leadership in completing the acquisition of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff preserve south of Port Washington on Lake Michigan. That project protects 1300 feet of shoreline and bluffs, one of the few remaining such properties.

At the same time, the Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation (CLCF) in the south-central part of Washington County is enjoying banner years under the leadership of Executive Director Linda Mutschler (below). Linda is one of the most organized human beings on earth.

She has inventoried and catalogued all of the properties in its mission area, the Cedar Lakes watershed, in a superbly professional manner. CLCF will have protected 300 additional acres in 2023, bringing its portfolio of precious natural areas to 2,884 acres.

CLCF is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, land trusts in Wisconsin going back to 1974 when 11 founding donors led by Geoffrey Maclay got it going. At that time, zero percent of the land in the watershed was protected, and 6% of the land was developed. The rest was farmland.

Today 48% has been developed, 30% is in farmland or open space and 22% has been protected by 50 years of CLCF work.

In a recent newsletter, Mutschler wrote, “But our work is not done! We are in a race for open space.

The 30% represents approximately 4,000 acres in the watershed – 2200 acres in farmland and 1800 in wetlands, forestlands, or open space.

“That’s all that is left to protect,” Mutschler said.

The CLCF goal in the next five years is to protect another 600 acres.

When accepting his award, Stolp said that OWLT is in the process of creating four new nature preserves. It has protected more than 7,359 acres across the two counties in its 30 years of existence.

That’s more than 10,000 acres preserved by the two land trusts.

Most impressive at the awards ceremony hosted by Gathering Waters, the state’s land trust alliance, was the 125 attendees. Almost all of them had played a pivotal role in the development and evolution of OWLT.

Each trust started off as a volunteer organization that boot-strapped its way into existence. They are now both fully staffed and audited. OWLT is accredited while CLCF is almost there. They are highly professional organizations that have come a long way to the benefit of the land and water of the two counties.

While all is well at the local level, the picture at the state level is more complicated. The GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee (JFC ) of the legislature has stymied a good number of preservation projects across the state that had already been approved by the Department of Natural Resources.

We almost lost the Clay Bluffs project and the renovated Riverwalk in West Bend because of the resistance by JFC. The 56,000-acre Pelican River Forest project near Rhinelander has been stalled by JFC. It’s the biggest conservation project ever proposed in the state.

Gov. Evers stepped in to save the Port Washington and West Bend projects with left-over federal funds. Evers is suing the legislature for over-stepping its jurisdiction by overriding executive branch decisions.

How will Wisconsin’s Supreme Court come down on that separation of powers issue? We will find out in 2024 when the new liberal majority on the pocket veto by the conservative majority on the JFC.

Preservation projects should not be partisan, but the reality is that they have become so. Know, though, that there is a way to eliminate the controversy. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund has been funded by state borrowing. The accumulated debt now stands at $714 million. The Republican position against more debt is understandable.

A fiscally conservative solution: Use about $1.2 million of the state’s $4 million surplus to pay off the debt and create a $500 million permanent endowment for preservation of land and water resources. That funding would be there forever and the continuing controversy surrounding stewardship funding would disappear.

Every poll of citizens on conservation shows huge majorities in favor of continuing funding of preservation – as high a 80%.

Wisconsin has always been a standout state on conservation philosophies and policies. The endowment fund would permanently put Wisconsin’s money where its mouth is.

Further, success at the local level could be accelerated if some stability were established at the state level.

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