Last year, Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT) was looking forward to celebrating the completion of a decade-long effort to protect Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs – a 131-acre natural area overlooking Lake Michigan in the City of Port Washington.
Instead, the project had to endure a tilt-a-whirl of challenges when a grant from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program was suddenly blocked anonymously by a member of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance.
Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs is a unique property.
Located 30 miles north of Milwaukee, the natural area features rare iconic clay bluffs, deep gorges, and white cedar woods. It also includes nearly three-quarters of a mile of undisturbed Lake Michigan shoreline. The property provides habitat for many species of wildlife and serves as a resting spot for migrating birds along the Lake Michigan flyway.
Acquiring this property and keeping it in its natural state would provide much-needed recreational access along the lake. The addition of another nature preserve would take pressure off the nearby Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, which has experienced a sharp rise in visitors since 2020.
OWLT had counted on the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and its faithful supporters to get the job done.
The land trust worked diligently to raise funds to buy the land. With a plan and an offer to purchase, OWLT kicked its fundraising campaign into overdrive to raise $5 million.
They held fundraisers in the community and worked with Ozaukee County to apply for federal conservation grants.
They also applied for matching grant funding through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. After an extensive, months-long review process, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved a $2.3 million Knowles-Nelson grant for this one-of-a-kind property.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story.
The project still needed one more approval.
Before Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve could become a reality, the grant award required a passive review from the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance. This powerful committee has the authority to look at any Knowles-Nelson Stewardship grant request over $250,000.
Suddenly, the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve had hit a roadblock.
On the last day of the review period, one of the elected officials serving on the committee lodged an anonymous objection – and effectively stopped the project.
The rules for project review by the committee are vague at best. There are no formal criteria. If one member on the committee raises an objection—which can be done anonymously—the project can get stalled, sometimes indefinitely.
Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and Gathering Waters advocated for the grant to move forward, to no avail.
Then, months later, the committee arbitrarily proposed a much smaller amount of $1.6 million ($700,000 less than the original grant).
But when OWLT contacted the Joint Committee on Finance to schedule a grant hearing to accept the lower amount, the committee didn’t respond – even when several of its members called on committee leaders.
OWLT could no longer count on state funding.
By February 2022, it was apparent the project would not receive any grant funding from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
Wisconsin taxpayers will never know which elected official objected to the funding or why. We’ll never know why there was never a hearing to close the deal for the reduced grant amount offered by the committee.
There was no transparency. No paper trail. No recourse.
There was no public explanation as to why the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve project was rejected.
We do know that during this same period, an anonymous real estate developer had hired a lobbyist and had expressed an interest in buying property.
Is that the real reason why the grant never received a vote? We’ll never know.
The loss of grant funding put Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve in a precarious position.
Discouraged but not beaten, OWLT turned to their generous supporters. They made it clear what had happened, and friends of land protection responded.
With support from Gathering Waters, OWLT told their story through local and statewide media.
They asked the residents of Ozaukee County to speak up and reach out to their elected officials, and they did. Hundreds of people reached out to their elected officials through Team Knowles Nelson.
Unexpected funding arrived to save Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs.
Weeks before the property would have been lost, relief funding to acquire Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs came decisively and boldly from Governor Tony Evers.
On August 18, 2022, Governor Evers awarded funding to five conservation projects that were waiting for approval for state funding. The WDNR had approved them for Knowles-Nelson grants, but they, like Cedar Gorge, had stalled in the Joint Committee on Finance for as long as two years.
Governor Evers awarded Ozaukee Washington Land Trust the $2.3 million it needed to buy the land through a one-time allocation of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Ozaukee Washington Land Trust purchased the property on August 26, 2022.
Now, despite anonymous objections and secretive buyers, the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve will be available for all to enjoy. The land is forever preserved and protected for the public.
But there’s still work to do.
Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts is working closely with conservation partners, champions in the legislature, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Governor’s office to address the troubling trend of anonymous and seemingly arbitrary objections to worthy conservation projects.
For more information on the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and the advocacy work that Gathering Waters does, visit www.KnowlesNelson.org. To support this work, donate at https://gatheringwaters.org/donate.