Wisconsin conservationists hope to get at least a glimpse this week of the state Department of Natural Resources' plans to implement dramatic cuts to the agency's stewardship program, the key mechanism for preserving land.
DNR officials are slated to brief the Natural Resources Board at a meeting Wednesday at a Baraboo hotel. Typically, the board's agenda contains extensive background on proposals, but the stewardship discussion isn't an actionable item and its description doesn't offer any details.
DNR officials and Natural Resources Board Chairman Preston Cole didn't immediately return messages Monday. Neither did the chairman of the Stewardship Advisory Council, which advises the DNR on stewardship policy.
Mike Carlson, government relations director for Gathering Waters Conservancy, sits on the council. He said DNR staff has had what he called "preliminary discussions" with the council outlining the cuts but have revealed few specifics on implementation.
"They're really in the decision-making process internally," Carlson said. "We'll certainly be tracking this stuff."
The stewardship program, implemented in 1989, authorizes the DNR to borrow money for land purchases, boat landing repair, property development and grants to conservancy organizations. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated 1.5 million acres are currently in stewardship.
Republicans have long criticized the program, saying it removes land from the tax rolls, closes too much stewardship land to hunting and fishing and runs up spectacular debt. The fiscal bureau this spring estimated the state will have to pay $91 million in debt service for stewardship purchases in 2013-14 and $94.5 million in 2014-15.
The 2013-15 state budget that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed in June scaled the program back dramatically. The budget reduced stewardship borrowing authority for land acquisition and development from $60 million annually to $47.5 million in the budget's first year, $54.5 million in the second and $50 million each year after that through mid-2020.
The budget also caps the amount of stewardship land the DNR can own directly at 1.9 million acres, prohibits the DNR from buying any land outside existing project boundaries without approval from the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee and directs the agency to sell 10,000 acres by mid-2017.
The changes could spare the state up to $98 million in debt service by mid-2020, according to the fiscal bureau.
Republican lawmakers say the reductions establish a balance between environmental and fiscal responsibility. Democrats and conservationists say the moves will cripple the program.
Some conservation groups already are rethinking donating land to the DNR, fearful the agency may sell it off, Carlson said.
Shahla Warner, director of the Sierra Club's Wisconsin chapter, said she hasn't heard anything about the DNR's implementation plan. The chapter's conservation committee chairman, Will Stahl, is planning to attend the Baraboo meeting, Warner said.
Warner lamented the stewardship reductions, saying it makes more sense to buy land now when interest rates are low. She also raised questions about whether the sell-off mandate could create windfalls for Republican supporters looking to buy real estate.
"Ten thousand acres may not seem like much, but I've seen plenty of winners and losers in the Walker administration. Is someone going to be rewarded with some sweet land deal?" she said. "It just seems really unfortunate to be looking at (the program) as a liability rather than a huge asset to Wisconsin."