Wisconsin residents have shown a renewed interest in outdoor activities during the pandemic, but conservation groups and some local governments say to keep public lands viable, a key program needs to be renewed.
Next month, Gov. Tony Evers unveils his proposed budget, and nature advocates hope it includes re-authorization of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, due to expire this summer.
The state fund was established in 1989 to buy natural landscapes and administer grants for trail construction and other outdoor improvements.
Matt Dallman, deputy state director for The Nature Conservancy, said it benefits residents all over Wisconsin.
"Natural resources and our natural environments in the state are important, whether they're in an urban setting or in a rural setting, important to our economy" Dallman asserted. "It's places where people get out, hike and ski."
Last year, the Department of Natural Resources reported a surge in visitations to outdoor sites, putting strain on operations and infrastructure. Advocates say that's why another 10 years of funding is needed.
During the pandemic, a bi-partisan poll commissioned by The Nature Conservancy found 76% of state residents supporting a renewal. It's unclear whether Republican leaders would back the move, if Evers recommends it. Some have raised concerns about debt obligations tied to the program.
Zach Vruwink, former mayor of Wisconsin Rapids, and other local leaders said the investments will pay off. He noted Wisconsin Rapids used more than $2 million in grants from the program for shoreline stabilization and recreational trail work along the Wisconsin River.
"The projects were completed, last year in 2020," Vruwink explained. "And now we're seeing great interest by the public to convene in those spaces, particularly during COVID."
He added visitors support "Main Street" businesses in smaller towns, which have a hard time attracting larger retailers.
Supporters of the stewardship program said it also can protect water quality, mitigate flood risks, and protect a variety of species.
The program is operating on a one-year extension, but the current funding is much lower than the previous recurring amount of $86 million.