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Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Program

Named after two former Wisconsin governors, Warren Knowles, a Republican, and Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program honors Wisconsin’s historic commitment to land and water protection and outdoor recreation. If there’s a natural place in Wisconsin that is special to you, chances are the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has made it better.

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program provides funds for cities, counties, non-profit groups, and the state to purchase land for conservation, outdoor recreation and trails. It funds essential upkeep and maintenance of our waterways, parks, forests, and trails. The hiking, biking, snowmobile and ATV trails across the state owe their existence to the program. Local governments and citizen conservation organizations also receive funds to purchase land for conservation and protect our land, lakes, rivers and streams. Stewardship has funded projects in every single county in Wisconsin.

silohuette of geese family swimming past handlebars
The Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee used to be an abandoned industrial brownfield. With the help of Stewardship Program funds it now is full of life and good paying 13,000 jobs.

How is the Program Funded?

The Stewardship Program is funded using general obligation bonds, which, like a home mortgage, require the state to pay principal and interest over time for an investment that will last for generations. Debt service for Stewardship Program borrowing accounts for less than 0.3% of Wisconsin’s state budget, and works out to a little more than $0.30 per Wisconsinite per week or approximately $15 per resident per year. The state legislature has historically reauthorized the program for ten-year periods. It began at $25 million a year in funding, eventually it reached a high of $86 million. On June 10th, 2021 the legislature reauthorized the program for four years at $32 million per year.

What is next for Stewardship?

The 2021-23 budget provided a largely missed opportunity to restore funding and certainty to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. While Governor Evers’ budget proposal included exciting provisions for the Program – a ten-year reauthorization and funding at $70 million annually — the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee opted to not include these provisions in their state budget bill. Instead, they kept the status quo for funding at about $32 million per year, less than half of the governor’s proposal. They did, however, agree to a lengthening of the Program’s reauthorization, moving it from two years to four. While a four-year reauthorization doesn’t provide the same level of stability that the Governor’s ten-year proposal would have, it is a step in the right direction.

With Knowles-Nelson now reauthorized until 2026, all hands will be on deck to move the needle forward in getting increased funding and a lengthened reauthorization in place. While four years can feel like a long time to wait, it provides an opportunity to engage with every single legislator on the importance of the Program within their own district and constituency. We are committed to this work to ensure future steps forward for Knowles Nelson.

Our Ask:

The Wisconsin Bike Fed asks to restore increased funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and lengthen its reauthorization to provide certainty and stability for long-term endeavors.

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