Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program

Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund Graphic

We are approaching a critical crossroads for land conservation in Wisconsin with funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program slated to expire in 2020. Gathering Waters is committed to leading the advocacy effort to secure additional state funding for land conservation—and we’re prepared to push for the best possible outcome.

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is a highly successful public-private partnership that currently provides $33.5 million annually to secure critical wildlife habitat, conserve the best of outdoor Wisconsin and provide consistent world class outdoor recreation opportunities. It has played a key role in the success of land trusts throughout Wisconsin.

The Stewardship Program has protected more than 500,000 acres of Wisconsin's most beautiful and diverse lands and waters since 1990. Projects have ranged from 100-square-mile purchases such as the Wild Rivers Legacy Forest in northeast Wisconsin to 1-acre additions to the Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee. 

Your voice matters and you can make a difference in advocating for the future of the Stewardship Program. 

Benefits of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to Wisconsin

  • Wisconsin’s $12 billion outdoor recreation industry, including our $4 billion hunting and fishing industry, is bolstered directly by public lands and conservation easements purchased through the Stewardship Program.
  • Wisconsin ranks 3rd behind our neighbors Minn. and Michigan in state-owned public land.
  • Wisconsin’s population is projected to grow nearly 15% in the next 20 years, increasing demand for public recreation opportunities in all corners of the state.
  • Lack of public access is cited repeatedly as a major threat to our state’s sporting heritage.
  • The state’s $20 billion forestry industry is directly supported by the Stewardship Program through working forest conservation easements and land purchases.
  • Fragmentation of forestland is a significant concern in some areas of the state, as is access to timber.  Stewardship helps ensure that large blocks of forests remain in sustainable production, keeping raw material available for pulp and saw mills.
  • Conservation easements, such as the one proposed by the DNR on forestland in Sawyer County, are a cost-effective approach—allowing the public to purchase specific rights, like public access and limiting development and subdivision, while also maintaining the land in private ownership and keeping it on local tax rolls.  Working forest conservation easements have become a vital tool for maintaining contiguous productive forestland in sustainable management.
  • Other examples of economic impact of the Stewardship Program:  The Ice Age Trail is visited by more than 1.2 million visitors annually, partially supporting more than 1,400 full-time equivalent jobs that relate to the tourism industry. Estimated labor income of $35,413,364 contributes $113,961,357 in direct sales from Ice Age Trail visitors to statewide and local economies.  In the Driftless Area, trout anglers produce an economic benefit in excess of $1.1 billion every year and stream-bank easements which are funded through the Stewardship Program provide the public access that helps to drive this activity.


How is the Stewardship Program funded?  What is the relative cost of Stewardship?

    • The Stewardship Program is funded using general obligation bonds, which, like a mortgage, requires 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 the 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.  A resident gun deer hunting license costs $24, a general fishing license costs $20, and a state park sticker costs $25.
    • Stewardship accounts for less than 15% of the DNR’s overall budget, representing a crucial investment that supports Wisconsin’s outdoor recreation and forestry industries.

A History of Strong Bi-partisan Support

Over the years, the citizens of Wisconsin have shown overwhelming support for this program. In a bipartisan poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, nearly 90 percent of Wisconsin voters agreed that even in tight fiscal times this program should be a priority. Over the years, Gathering Waters has fought to prevent funding cuts and ensure that the program was reauthorized each decade. With our population growing and an increased demand for outdoor recreational opportunities, our work is far from done.


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