Protecting Wisconsin’s Land

Something unheard of just happened in Wisconsin. The legislature voted to require public lands to be sold off. After decades of bipartisan work to ensure that Wisconsin’s most beautiful and important natural places are protected, policy makers have reversed course.

Act Now: Pledge to Protect Our Public Lands
Act Now: Save Stewardship

Our land protection efforts have long been a source of pride for Wisconsin citizens, no matter our political affiliations – which is why it is so surprising (and alarming) that our current crop of state legislators would reject the legacy of Wisconsin’s many bipartisan conservation leaders of the past. Rather than protecting the places where we hunt, hike, fish, and camp, current legislators are calling for the sale of our public land and increasing unsustainable timber harvests. These legislators have made a grave political miscalculation. With your help, we will make sure they get the message that Wisconsin voters expect their representatives to protect our land for future generations.

View the list of lands that the state currently has up for sale here.  

Why Our Land is Important

Our Health

“The issue appears plain. Is Wisconsin going to look upon its bays and lake shores, its rivers and bluffs, its dells, its inland lakes, its forests, as natural resources to be conserved and some portion at least acquired and held for the benefit of all the people – both for present and future generations?”– John Nolen

With each passing year, television, video games, and computers compete more and more for our attention. When they successfully pull us away from time in the outdoors, our physical fitness, stress levels, and healthy development suffer, especially for kids. According to The Kaiser Family Fund, American children spend more than 7 ½ hours a day on smart phones and computers and watching television – over 53 hours a week plugged into electronic media! With skyrocketing rates of obesity, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, and other problems, the need for access to natural places to play and explore has never been greater. But it’s important for adults too. Anyone will agree – a gym is no substitute for a protected outdoor place when it comes to stretching your legs, filling your lungs with fresh air, and clearing your head.

There is also the matter of pollution. Protecting land around rivers, lakes, and streams will keep pollution from flowing into these waters and prevent it from eventually contaminating our drinking water. Protected places stave off poorly planned development that lead to congestion and smog and preserve the vegetation that naturally purifies our air and water.

Our Economy

Cardinal in treePublic lands are a major economic driver in Wisconsin. In fact, the outdoor recreation industry accounts for $11.9 billion in consumer spending and over 142,000 jobs. Sixty percent of Wisconsin residents participate in outdoor recreation, and our natural resources are a significant part of Wisconsin’s $12 billion tourism industry.(1)

However, the economic benefits go beyond outdoor recreation. Sustainable forestry practices on county lands have been a huge win-win for counties and local townships, providing income for local communities while protecting millions of acres for hiking, hunting, fishing, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In fact, forest products from county forests generate in excess of $21 million dollars annually in timber sale revenue for the counties and townships, plus an additional $17.2 million in economic impact.(2)

Our Enjoyment

From the Baraboo Hills to the Northwoods and from Door County to the Kettle Moraine and everywhere in between, Wisconsin is home to beautiful natural places where residents and visitors can hike, hunt, fish, canoe, bird watch, and explore. Many of those lands are public, while others are privately owned but open to public access. They allow us to experience white sand dunes along Lake Michigan, to fish in cold, clear trout streams, to hike to towering waterfalls and deep into hardwood forests, and to climb to sweeping vistas of the Mississippi River. They allow us to take our kayaks and canoes to explore those hard-to-reach backwater flowages and they give us places to hunt ducks, whitetails, and turkey. They give us places for our children to play, to explore, to run, to get dirty, and to be kids.

The Problem

UW ArboretumWhile there is still broad support for land protection from Wisconsin citizens, we now see attacks on these lands from extreme elected leaders and fringe groups. In the spring of 2013, the Legislative Joint Finance Committee cut the Stewardship Program significantly and, perhaps more important to note, changed the law to require the state to sell back public lands purchased through the Stewardship Program.(3) At that same time, a coalition of fringe groups called on the legislature to return Stewardship land to the private sector.(4)

Unfortunately, it gets worse. At their 2013 state convention, the Wisconsin Republican Party, in direct opposition to what voters across both parties have supported, passed the following platform position:

Be it further resolved that the Republican Party of Wisconsin:

  • Stands opposed to Stewardship Fund land purchases and calls for the ending of the Stewardship Fund and other state and federal controls of land.
  • Urges the State to sell land instead of purchasing more land.(5)

In addition, there is chatter in the Capitol of legislators interested in changing the purpose of many of our public lands from resource protection and sustainable use to extraction. Rather than have a thriving, sustainable timber industry that raises revenue while protecting forestland, the measure of success would be how much timber can be cut and sold. There are also indications that there will be more attempts to privatize public lands, beyond what we are already seeing in the Stewardship Program.

These attacks and bad ideas are all the more alarming and urgent because of one simple fact about our land: They aren’t making any more of it.

The Programs

Stewardship Program

Since its creation in 1989, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has protected some of the most beautiful and diverse land and waters in Wisconsin – places where we hunt, hike, fish and canoe. Named after two Wisconsin Governors who led the way in conservation – Republican Warren Knowles and Democrat Gaylord Nelson – the Stewardship Program has always enjoyed overwhelming support from voters of all political stripes. In a bipartisan poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, nearly 90% of Wisconsin voters agree that even in tight fiscal times this program should be a priority.(6)

Above, this graphic from the Wisconsin DNR's website advertises the sale of 10,000 acres of public land - and that may just be the start of more to come.

Above, this graphic from the Wisconsin DNR’s website advertises the sale of 10,000 acres of public land – and that may just be the start of more to come.

Until very recently, the Stewardship Program also enjoyed sweeping support from legislators across the political spectrum. However, in just the past two years, support has declined inside the Capitol. There are legislators now working to slash the Stewardship Program’s budget and sell off its land to private owners. In the 2013-2015 state budget, legislators reduced overall funding of the Stewardship Program by $63 million over the next six years, diverted $14 million for fish hatchery development, and directed the DNR to sell at least 10,000 acres in the next four years. Among voters, widespread support for the program continues while a sense of shock and outrage that decision makers have gone so far afield is beginning to emerge.

Managed Forest Law

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”– Theodore Roosevelt

Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law (MFL) provides tax incentives to landowners who practice sustainable forestry on their private woodlots. This working land incorporates timber harvest, wildlife management, water quality, and recreation in a way that benefits Wisconsin’s economy while also benefiting water and air quality, recreation, and wildlife.

Landowners who participate in the MFL program receive a tax incentive in exchange for promising to put their land into a 25 or 50 year sustainable forest management plan. MFL land can be open or closed to the public – with those open lands getting a better tax benefit than closed lands.

The legislature will be considering revisions to the Managed Forest Law in the fall of 2013. Stay tuned for more on that.


Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters supports fostering and maintaining a lands legacy in Wisconsin that:

Beaver Creek

  • Preserves rare landscape elements, critical habitats, and associated species.
  • Avoids land uses that deplete natural resources over a broad area.
  • Retains large contiguous or connected areas that contain critical habitats.
  • Implements land use and management practices that are compatible with the natural potential of the area.
  • Balances resource protection with the ability of Wisconsin citizens to enjoy the land.
  • Embraces the role of state government in securing long-term land protection, while encouraging partnerships with local governments, non-profits, and private land owners.
“There was a special adventure to being a young boy in northwestern Wisconsin. There was the adventure of exploring a deep green pine forest, crunching noisily through the crisp leaves and pine needles on a sharp fall day, or taking a cool drink from a fast running trout stream or a hidden lake.”– Gaylord Nelson

We will advocate for these values as we defend against attacks on our land programs and as we monitor routine changes like the bi-annual reauthorization of the Stewardship Program and the upcoming review of the Managed Forest Law. The key to success is reconnecting our decision makers with the lands we love and reminding them of the political value in standing up for Wisconsin’s land legacy. Our work will:

  • Connect citizens to decision makers, so they can hear the personal stories of how Wisconsinites benefit from land protection programs.
  • Bring decision makers out onto the lands, so they can experience them first-hand.
  • Introduce land protection experts to decision makers to foster further education and understanding of economic, health, and environmental benefits.
  • Support the important work of our land trust and local government partners.

Take Action

Do you have a favorite protected place? Share your story and a photo with Lands, Camera, Action! We’ll use this as a first step in connecting your values to your legislators.



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