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Public lands enhance our high quality of life, tourism, and economy. The Department of Natural Resources acquires an average of 17,651 acres each year under the Stewardship Program and DNR manages 1,300,200 acres in state parks and trails, forests, natural areas, and fish and wildlife areas. Such holdings are impressive, but our land legacy might have been even greater.
At statehood in 1848, the federal government awarded Wisconsin 500,000 acres that could be sold to help finance the new state government's operations. Subsequent land grants transferred almost 10 million acres to state hands. The main concern in those early days was making land available to new settlers, creating a prosperous economy, and raising money to fund the new government. Business at government land offices was brisk, but the holdings were so vast that it was well into the late 1800s before most state land was sold.
Long afterwards, the trend began to reverse. In 1876, the state purchased its first land south of Madison for the Nevin Fish Hatchery. Two years later, 50,000 acres in Iron, Vilas and Oneida counties were set aside as "The State Park." Twenty years later funds were short, most other virgin timber had been cut, and the Legislature sold off "The State Park" to lumber companies for $8 an acre. Ironically, much of this same land would later revert to the state as tax-delinquent, cut-over land to create the Northern Highland State Forest.
State interest in land conservation was reborn in 1900 when the first state park, Interstate, was created on the St. Croix River. In 1907, landscape architect and planner John Nolen was hired to search for other suitable sites. His report to the State Park Board included this challenge:
"The issue appears plain. Is Wisconsin going to look upon its bays and lake shores, its rivers and bluffs, its dells, its inland lakes, its forests, as natural resources to be conserved and some portion at least acquired and held for the benefit of all the people – both for present and future generations? Is the State to display foresight and act in time in this important matter, recognizing and providing for the increase of population?"
The challenge was heard. The Nolen Report set the criteria, rationale, and vision for state land purchases that still apply today, including preserving places of scientific or historical significance, providing public access for all people, and clearly stating the economic value of investing in public lands.
The idea of "state forest reserves" began to evolve. The cut-over lands had been logged off, abandoned, and were growing back as brush. Wildfires, flooding, and erosion were common on these lands. State Forester E. M. Griffith detailed the solution in 1909 – gradual state purchases and restocking of denuded areas would eventually recover the land and produce a sustained crop of mature timber.
Much more slowly than the lands were sold, they were reacquired parcel by parcel. Wetlands, too. In 1927, the 11,000 acre Horicon Marsh, destroyed by dredging, was acquired and slowly restored to provide wildlife habitat, hunting, and trapping. This fine example prompted a 1937 program to use money from hunting license sales to buy land for game refuges and public hunting and fishing grounds. That same year, federal excise taxes on sales of sporting arms and ammunition provided funds to buy wild lands for hunting and outdoor enjoyment. The first southern state forest, the Kettle Moraine, was created in 1937 to preserve the unique scenic and geological features and provide outdoor recreation close to the population centers.
In 1951, the Natural Areas program was created and in 1968, a Wild Rivers program.
Today, 9,471-acres have been purchased on the Pine-Popple River and the Pike River preserving 72 miles of pristine river frontage. The state population continued to grow faster than our ability to provide wide-open spaces. A one-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes financed the Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP) in 1960 to buy lands and secure conservation easements. By 1967, it was clear that ORAP alone would not finance the broad range of public recreation people wanted. A statewide referendum approved the sale of state bonds to acquire public spaces.
ORAP was replaced in 1989 by the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program which has purchased large parcels like the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, the Willow Flowage, the Wisconsin Heights Battleground and the Wolf River Bottoms. Stewardship has enlarged public holdings in 547 properties including parks, trails, forests, fishery areas and wildlife areas as well as disbursing grants to non-profit conservation organizations and local governments to develop conservation projects and buy recreational lands.
What are our options to maintain opportunities for outdoor enjoyment? A special task force will make recommendations to the Governor for the future of the Stewardship program.
Greg Delwiche is regional real estate manager for DNR's South Central Region. Tracey Teodecki is easement coordinator for the Bureau of Facilities and Lands.