By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ board will get an in-depth look this week at dramatic cuts Republican lawmakers made to the agency’s stewardship program, the key mechanism for preserving land in the state.
DNR officials are slated to brief the Natural Resources Board on the cuts Wednesday in Baraboo. The board’s agendas usually contain extensive background on proposals, but the stewardship discussion isn’t an actionable item and its description doesn’t offer any details, promising only that DNR staff will describe how they will implement the changes.
DNR Real Estate Chief Doug Haag pulled back from that on Monday, saying the agency will provide an overview of the cuts. The new state budget mandates the changes and leaves agency officials little discretion, he said.
Board chairman Preston Cole said Wednesday’s meeting will mark the beginning of trying to understand the cuts and how to weather them.
The stewardship program authorizes the DNR to borrow money for land purchases, boat landing repair, property development and grants to conservancy organizations. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated 1.5 million acres are currently in stewardship.
Republicans have long criticized the program, saying it removes land from the tax rolls, closes off too much stewardship land to hunting and fishing and has run up spectacular debt. The fiscal bureau this spring estimated the state will have to pay more than $185 million in debt payments for stewardship over the next two fiscal years.
The 2013-15 state budget Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed in June reduced stewardship borrowing authority from $60 million annually to $47.5 million in the budget’s first year. It set the limit at $54.5 million in the second year and $50 million in each year after that through mid-2020.
The budget also caps the amount of stewardship land the DNR can own directly at 1.9 million acres, prohibits the agency from buying land outside existing project boundaries without approval from the Legislature’s budget committee and directs the agency to sell 10,000 acres by mid-2017.
The changes could spare the state up to $98 million in debt by mid-2020, the fiscal bureau has said.
Conservationists are closely watching how the DNR handles the cuts. Some groups already are rethinking donating land to the DNR, fearful the agency may sell it off, said Mike Carlson, government relations director for the Gathering Waters Conservancy.
Shahla Warner, director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter, raised questions about whether the sell-off mandate could create windfalls for Republican supporters looking to buy real estate.
“Ten thousand acres may not seem like much, but I’ve seen plenty of winners and losers in the Walker administration. Is someone going to be rewarded with some sweet land deal?” she said. “It just seems really unfortunate to be looking at (the program) as a liability rather than a huge asset to Wisconsin.”