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A bill would give landowners more flexibility to sell land bought with Knowles Nelson dollars, conservationists fear it will undermine the entire program

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Katie Thoresen

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated , under the proposed bill, a landowner could sell the land bought with Knowles Nelson funding with DNR approval. That is incorrect. The landowner would just need to give notice to the DNR that it plans to sell.

Several years ago, Langlade County bought the Bob Lyle Boy Scout Camp with the goal of turning it into a public campground.

Some of the money put into the land was from the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program.

The state-run program, funded by taxpayers, is meant to conserve the land for public use.

While that’s still Langlade County’s intention for most of the land, County Administrator Jason Hilger says it would like to keep its options open.

“The new county board and/or committee would like to consider selling part of the property to use it to improve the other part of the property,” said Hilger.

That’s difficult under current law.

The program is designed to protect land bought with Knowles Nelson money from being developed forever.

As the law stands now, if the county was able to sell the land and get the sale approved by the Natural Resources Board, the new owner would have to enter into the same land conservation agreement.

Hilger supports a bill introduced by Tomahawk Senator Mary Felzkowski that would make it easier for a group or government to sell land bought with Knowles Nelson dollars.

Senate Bill 802 would allow owners to sell the land to a potential developer so as long as the DNR is given notices and the DNR is reimbursed for the grant money, plus interest.

“I think it’s a great bill that gives more flexibility. There can always be stipulations which the end result would need to be approved again by Knowles Nelson. I think there should be some consideration for the bill,” said Hilger.

The Wisconsin Counties Association is also in favor of the bill.

But it’s raising alarms for several conservation groups in the state.

Bill opposition

Trout Unlimited, Wisconsin’s Green Fire, and Gathering Waters are among those opposed to the bill.

“I think there are two major red flags with this bill,” said Charles Carlin. He’s director of strategic initiatives for Gathering Waters, Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts.

He says this bill would undermine the spirit of conservation in Wisconsin and of the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program.

“It shifts conservation of our land and water resources to a commitment that we’re making forever. Saying that we are going to conserve land for our kids and grandkids and future generations to making conservation a matter of convenience,” said Carlin.

Carlin says the bill would make it so conservation would be dependent on financial constraints or changes in politics.

His other red flag with the bill? Losing public trust in government spending on stewardship.

While Knowles Nelson dollars may go into a project, it’s usually not the only funding source.

Typically, the grants are matching funds with the rest of the money raised through public fundraising campaigns.

“They gave that money with the intention that the land being protected would be put into conservation forever. With this bill, it doesn’t affect Knowles Nelson Stewardship projects just going forward, but would apply to all projects in the history of the program,” Carlin said.

Carlin is sympathetic to what Langlade County or others like it may want to do but believes there can be a better solution than changing the Knowles Nelson Program.

“We’re talking about using a really blunt instrument in statewide legislation to solve a very narrow problem that would then create more problems all over the state,” he said.

Langlade County Administrator Jason Hilger doesn’t want to see land and water go unprotected.

He understands the concerns brought up by conservation groups, but still believes there are ways to a compromise.

“I would not favor a bill that would just allow entities to receive funding like that and then turn around and say flip real estate or make developments. I would like to see this land protected as well, but it certainly could be protected in other ways,” he said.

The same bill has also been introduced in the Assembly by Tomahawk Representative Calvin Callahan.

The Committee on Forestry, Parks and Outdoor Recreation will hold a public hearing on it next Wednesday.

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