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Draft Bill Would Cut BCPL Land Acquisition Power, Give Local Stewardship Veto

Buck Vaughn
The Conservation Fund

Two Republican legislators want to see major changes within the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. 

The organization was founded in the mid 1800s to sell millions of acres of school trust fund lands.  It now maintains a loan fund for municipal projects, with the interest going to pay for school libraries.  BCPL also owns and manages about a small amount of land, about 80-thousand acres for timber. 

Along with New Berlin Republican Joe Sanfelippo has helped draft a bill to stop the BCPL from buying new land. Sanfelippo says other investments make more money than the timber sales. 

“So we should divest the remaining land that we have which is about 77-thousand acres – and you keep the board in place, just to oversee the trust funds and the investments.”

BCPL Executive Secretary Tia Nelson says the organization wouldn’t benefit from more cash reserves, because its loan fund isn’t being fully utilized as it is. 

“Land bank purchases have provided the BCPL trust funds with a cash return that is more than three times higher than our alternative investments at this time. They have provided a significant increase in value to our other trust lands.”

BCPL land ownership is capped, and it must sell land in order to buy anything new.  The organization buys land in order to consolidate parcels, obtain access to land-locked ones, or acquire more productive acreage. 

The draft bill (LRB-0169/1) also proposes further changes to the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program. 

The bill would stop the DNR from paying communities property taxes on land that goes to the program.  

Sanfelippo says that would leave it up to communities to decide whether putting land into conservation is worth lost property taxes. The bill also gives local governments the final say over land grants and purchases made for conservation under the program.

“There really is no opportunity for meaningful input from local authorities. So whether they want the land in the program or not, they just kind of get bullied into it by the DNR.”

But conservation advocates say the change could harm the program.  Spokesperson Mike Carlson of Gathering Waters Conservancy says there’s already opportunity for local communities to weigh in. 

““So there’s already a lot of oversight, a lot of public input that goes into these projects. So giving local communities basically veto authority over a statewide program and projects that have statewide significance would very much undermine the stewardship program

Carlson says the group hopes to work with the legislature to find a solution that keeps the Stewardship program strong. 

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