Supreme Court Victory for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program!

The Wisconsin State Capitol building with people on the steps and red and white flowers.

Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in favor of balanced government.

The majority opinion held that the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee can no longer obstruct conservation projects through anonymous objections and indefinite delays, deeming such actions unconstitutional.

This is a resounding victory that puts the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program back on track!

By reaffirming the constitutional separation of powers, the Court decisively eliminated the legislative obstruction that had nearly halted conservation efforts in recent years.

Notably, the Court’s near-unanimous decision transcends ideological lines. Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley authored the majority opinion. She was joined by all liberal justices and all but one of her conservative colleagues. This broad consensus underscores that the ruling is about good governance and constitutional integrity, not partisan politics.

Governor Tony Evers emphasized the ruling’s importance: 

“Republican lawmakers have spent years giving themselves outsized influence and power that they’ve used to unconstitutionally obstruct basic government functions and prevent my administration from doing the people’s work. And that includes preventing the implementation of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. That ends today.

“I’ve spent years working against near-constant Republican obstruction, and this historic decision rightfully resets constitutional checks and balances and restores separation of powers. This decision is a victory for the people of Wisconsin, who expect and deserve their government to work—and work for them, not against them.”

The Governor and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are now empowered to protect Wisconsin’s natural heritage without undue interference. Crucial land acquisitions and outdoor recreation investments will no longer be held hostage by legislative inaction or backroom politics.

Today’s victory is the result of years of collective effort. We thank every Team Knowles Nelson supporter, Wisconsin’s land trusts, the Evers administration, Josh Kaul and Colin Roth from the Department of Justice, and our legal team led by Erin Deeley at Stafford Rosenbaum. 

While some legislators are likely to express disappointment or resentment at today’s decision, it’s crucial to recognize that this ruling reigns in legislative overreach. As Justice Rebecca Dallet stated in her concurring opinion:

 “Our decision neither enhances executive power nor curtails legislative power. We simply confine the legislature to lawmaking and leave the execution of the laws to the executive as the Wisconsin Constitution commands.”

The Court’s ruling frees up the dedicated professionals at the DNR to work with local partners to efficiently and effectively administer the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. The DNR can now thoroughly vet projects and award grant funds based on merit, free from arbitrary objections or delays.

Looking ahead, we’re already setting our sights on the next state budget debate in 2025 when funding for Knowles-Nelson will be up for reauthorization. We may face opposition from some legislators unhappy with this ruling, but we must remind them that Knowles-Nelson is broadly and enthusiastically supported by residents in every corner of the state, regardless of their party affiliation. Conservation is not a partisan issue. It’s about preserving Wisconsin’s natural heritage for future generations.

Today, we celebrate this outcome as a victory for the people of Wisconsin and for conservation efforts across the state. Tomorrow, we continue our work to ensure the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program continues to protect the places that make Wisconsin special. 

Thank you for your support, and here’s to many more years of successful land and water conservation in our state!

Featured image by J. Stephen Conn, 2010.