Protecting Public Lands

The day Americans are born, we become landowners. We become part owners of some of the most beautiful property on the planet. The National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Monuments, National Scenic Trails, riverways, shorelines, great forests – we own them together, and can access them when we like.

In Wisconsin, hunting in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, kayaking the Apostle Islands, biking the Ice Age Trail, are made possible thanks to the foresight of people like Teddy Roosevelt who fought to protect our shared lands from being sold off and exploited.

TUW Arboretumoday, our national parks and monuments are under unprecedented attacks from the Trump administration.

First, the administration proposed drastic budget cuts for the Department of the Interior, which manages many of our parks, public lands, and resources. Now, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended shrinking national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act since 1996, paving the way to eliminate designations and protections for these incredible outdoor landscapes and cultural and historical sites.

We love the outdoors in Wisconsin. We’re hunters, anglers, bird watchers, cyclists, hikers, and campers. The joy of heading “up north” in the summer or fall is something we hold dear. Our shared lands are as much a part of our culture as beer and cheese – maybe more so.

This isn’t some far away problem. The growing threat of privatized public lands is a clear and immediate danger in Wisconsin.

Protecting our public lands is not just about Wisconsin values – it’s about the economy. In Wisconsin alone, our outdoor recreation industry generates $17 billion in consumer spending and our $4 billion hunting and fishing industries, depend on public access to our shared public lands.

Nationally, the figures are staggering. The outdoor recreation industry generates nearly $650 billion in consumer spending. Undermining the resources that fuel the engine of this economic activity would take our state and our country in the wrong direction.

Imagine heading to your favorite neck of the woods for a hunt, to wet a line, or observe the local bald eagle population only to find it roped off, sold to the highest bidder. That’s not Wisconsin. Our national public lands must be protected and preserved forever.


Why Our Land is Important

Our Health

“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?”
– John Nolen

With each passing year, mobile devices, television, video games, and computers compete more and more for our attention. When they successfully pull us away from time in the outdoors, our physical fitness, stress levels, and healthy development suffer, especially for kids. According to The Kaiser Family Fund, American children spend more than 7 ½ hours a day on smart phones and computers and watching television – over 53 hours a week plugged into electronic media! With skyrocketing rates of obesity, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, and other problems, the need for access to natural places to play and explore has never been greater. But it’s important for adults too. Anyone will agree – a gym is no substitute for a protected outdoor place when it comes to stretching your legs, filling your lungs with fresh air, and clearing your head.

There is also the matter of pollution. Protecting land around rivers, lakes, and streams will keep pollution from flowing into these waters and prevent it from eventually contaminating our drinking water. Protected places stave off poorly planned development that lead to congestion and smog and preserve the vegetation that naturally purifies our air and water.

Our Economy

Cardinal in tree

Public lands are a major economic driver in Wisconsin. In fact, the outdoor recreation industry accounts for $11.9 billion in consumer spending and over 142,000 jobs. Sixty percent of Wisconsin residents participate in outdoor recreation, and our natural resources are a significant part of Wisconsin’s $12 billion tourism industry.(1)

However, the economic benefits go beyond outdoor recreation. Sustainable forestry practices on county lands have been a huge win-win for counties and local townships, providing income for local communities while protecting millions of acres for hiking, hunting, fishing, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In fact, forest products from county forests generate in excess of $21 million dollars annually in timber sale revenue for the counties and townships, plus an additional $17.2 million in economic impact.(2)

Our Enjoyment

From the Baraboo Hills to the Northwoods and from Door County to the Kettle Moraine and everywhere in between, Wisconsin is home to beautiful natural places where residents and visitors can hike, hunt, fish, canoe, bird watch, and explore. Many of those lands are public, while others are privately owned but open to public access. They allow us to experience white sand dunes along Lake Michigan, to fish in cold, clear trout streams, to hike to towering waterfalls and deep into hardwood forests, and to climb to sweeping vistas of the Mississippi River. They allow us to take our kayaks and canoes to explore those hard-to-reach backwater flowages and they give us places to hunt ducks, whitetails, and turkey. They give us places for our children to play, to explore, to run, to get dirty, and to be kids.

Stewardship Program

“There was a special adventure to being a young boy in northwestern Wisconsin. There was the adventure of exploring a deep green pine forest, crunching noisily through the crisp leaves and pine needles on a sharp fall day, or taking a cool drink from a fast running trout stream or a hidden lake.”
– Gaylord Nelson

While there is still broad support for land protection from Wisconsin citizens, we now see attacks on these lands from extreme elected leaders and fringe groups. In addition to the attacks on our national public lands described above, we’ve also seen attacks on state lands and Wisconsin’s popular.

Since its creation in 1989, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has protected some of the most beautiful and diverse land and waters in Wisconsin – places where we hunt, hike, fish and canoe. Named after two Wisconsin Governors who led the way in conservation – Republican Warren Knowles and Democrat Gaylord Nelson – the Stewardship Program has always enjoyed overwhelming support from voters of all political stripes. In a bipartisan poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, nearly 90% of Wisconsin voters agree that even in tight fiscal times this program should be a priority.(6)

Until very recently, the Stewardship Program also enjoyed sweeping support from legislators across the political spectrum. However, in just the past few years, support has declined inside the Capitol. There are legislators now working to slash the Stewardship Program’s budget and sell off its land to private owners. In an extreme move, Governor Walker tried to freeze the popular land protection program in the 2015-2017 State Budget, but conservation voters weighed in almost 14,000 times with members of the Joint Finance Committee and the Governor to save it from extinction. Citizens held meetings with their legislators, wrote letters to local newspapers, and asked friends and family to join in. The thousands of stories citizens shared with legislators about the importance of this program brought it back to life, restoring over $33 million for land protection in Wisconsin.


Above, this graphic from the Wisconsin DNR’s website advertises the sale of 10,000 acres of public land – and that may just be the start of more to come.

Just as bad, in the 2013-2015 state budget, not only did legislators reduce overall funding of the Stewardship Program, but they also directed the DNR to sell off at least 10,000 acres. Among voters, widespread support for the program continues while a sense of shock and outrage that decision makers have gone so far afield is beginning to emerge.

In another surprising attack, in recent years both the Wisconsin Republican Party and the National Republican Party have included language in their official platforms calling for the sale of state and federal public lands and the discontinuation of the programs that protect these beautiful places for all of us to use.

In addition, there is chatter in the Capitol of legislators interested in changing the purpose of many of our public lands from resource protection and sustainable use to extraction. Rather than have a thriving, sustainable timber industry that raises revenue while protecting forestland, the measure of success would be how much timber can be cut and sold. There are also indications that there will be more continued attempts to privatize public lands.

These attacks and bad ideas are all the more alarming and urgent because of one simple fact about our land: They aren’t making any more of it.


Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters supports fostering and maintaining a lands legacy in Wisconsin that:

  • Preserves rare landscape elements, critical habitats, and associated species.
  • Avoids land uses that deplete natural resources over a broad area.
  • Retains large contiguous or connected areas that contain critical habitats.
  • Implements land use and management practices that are compatible with the natural potential of the area.
  • Balances resource protection with the ability of Wisconsin citizens to enjoy the land.
  • Embraces the role of state government in securing long-term land protection, while encouraging partnerships with local governments, non-profits, and private land owners.

Beaver CreekWe will advocate for these values as we defend against attacks on our land programs and as we monitor routine changes like the bi-annual reauthorization of the Stewardship Program. The key to success is reconnecting our decision makers with the lands we love and reminding them of the political value in standing up for Wisconsin’s land legacy. Our work will:

  • Connect citizens to decision makers, so they can hear the personal stories of how Wisconsinites benefit from land protection programs.
  • Bring decision makers out onto the lands, so they can experience them first-hand.
  • Introduce land protection experts to decision makers to foster further education and understanding of economic, health, and environmental benefits.
  • Support the important work of our land trust and local government partners.

Take Action

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
– Theodore Roosevelt



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