A controversy over the disposition of Knowles-Nelson Stewardship funds has revealed that stalling tactics on the part of the Republican-dominated state legislature may be aimed at undermining Wisconsin’s successful conservation program.
The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust was set to close on a $5 million deal with Waukesha State Bank to purchase the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs, 131 acres in Port Washington that includes a three-quarter mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline near the popular Lion’s Den Gorge. The plan to create a nature preserve was the culmination of ten years of fundraising and negotiations by OWLT, Ozaukee County, and the community.
Last June, the DNR awarded the Trust $2.3 million for the land purchase, with the funds coming from Knowles-Nelson grants. Once purchased, the land would be managed by Ozaukee County and open to the public.
Everything was set to move forward with the purchase of the property. But then on July 2, an anonymous finance committee member raised an objection to the $2.3 million dollar price tag. Anonymous objections are allowed by the rules of the Joint Committee on Finance, which is charged with “review” of all state spending and appropriations.
OWLT went back to the drawing board, raised more funds, and agreed to a reduced grant amount of $1.6 million. But the reduced amount may have been a ruse. The finance committee never held public hearings on the proposal, allowing the legislative clock to run out without approving the funding, to the dismay of both the Trust and the many Ozaukee County and Wisconsin residents who supported the preservation effort.
It emerged that the finance committee had been approached by an unnamed developer with an interest in purchasing the Cedar Gorge property.
An aid to finance committee member Sen. Duey Stroebel confirmed that the Saukville Republican was the anonymous committee member who raised an objection to the release of the $2.3 million grant. However, the aid, who asked not to be identified, attempted to paint Stroebel as acting on behalf of the preservation project, not working to impede it.
Stroebel, he said, “toured the property, believed it was a sound proposal, and worked toward a compromise” of a reduced grant amount of $1.6 million, “believing there was sufficient support amongst committee members.” He added that, “If Sentaor Stroebel didn’t support the project, he wouldn’t have put all that effort into it.”
But observers of the opaque process by which the finance committee has operated disagree with Stroebel’s characterization of himself as a supporter of the project. “While Sen. Duey Stroebel feigns support, I believe he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” wrote former Wisconsin legislator Jim Blank in a letter to the Ozaukee Press. “I believe Stroebel made his true feelings public. . . when he stated, ‘The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is not worth its cost to taxpayers.’”
On March 11, DNR secretary Preston D. Cole sent a letter to the finance committee co-chairs urging them to schedule a meeting to review six proposed stewardship fund requests, including the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve, “currently stalled in your committee due to anonymous objections, on which hearings have never been scheduled.” Cole’s letter noted that state law requires the hearings to be held.
But instead of public hearings, the finance committee has held “lots of phone calls and back room conversations to stealthily work around public records laws,” Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) wrote in an email to supporters. “This is unacceptable. The public deserves to know who is preventing this incredibly important project from moving forward, and why this individual wants to keep this amazing piece of property out of public hands.”
But while fears that the Cedar Gorge property will now fall into the hands of the mysterious developer lurking in the shadows with Senator Stroebel are legitimate, OWLT’s executive director Tom Stolp revealed that the effort to preserve Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs is not over.
“We’re not waiting for the joint committee on finance to move forward,” Stolp said. “We’re doing what we can to come up with the shortfall.” Stolp said OWLT is “not closing the door” on funding from Knowles-Nelson, but “we’re not getting any traction.”
If OWLT is “unsuccessful in securing funds,” Stolp said, the unidentified developer would likely prevail. “We’re not willing to let that happen. We’re having a very positive response from private philanthropy and other conservation interests.”
In the meantime, the Republican-dominated legislature has found other means to impede the conservation of Wisconsin’s natural heritage. The legislature did hold hearings on AB852/SB802, a bill that would ease restrictions on municipalities who wish to sell land purchased with Knowles-Nelson grants to private entities. Rep. Andraca pointed out that there should be better means of protecting cash-strapped municipalities, since people who donated their land to the state expected that it would remain part of the conservation program in perpetuity.
Wisconsin’s fiscal surplus is projected to be $3.8 billion when the current state budget expires in June 2023. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund was created in 1989. Initially, the program was budgeted at $250,000,000 for 10 years. In 2021, Governor Evers requested that the program be renewed for 10 years at $70 million per year. Republicans countered with a proposed $32 million for 4 years.
In the legislative session that ended in March, AB852/SB802 did not made it out of committee due to vocal public opposition. However, Stolp says it’s clear that where conservation is concerned, “the politics have shifted. The willingness of the Joint Committee on Finance to perpetuate this very opaque legislative maneuvering is making it very hard to predict” how the Knowles-Nelson stewardship program “is supposed to work,” he said.
You can take action in support of OWLT’s effort to preserve Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs as well as transparency in government here. And you can donate to the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust’s effort to save the Bluffs here.