Friday, December 16, 2011

DNR Secretary Stepp Emails About Stewardship Fund, Land Sales

I'd been blogging about DNR Secretary Stepp and her expressed interest in selling off lands from the Stewardship Fund, which she has called a credit card.

The Fund was reduced under Walker, and new rules are in place that will definitely slow down potential purchases.

More here.

Last week, as word of Stepp's position circulated more widely, she sent this email to employees:

From: "Stepp, Cathy L - DNR" <>
Date: Fri, 9 Dec 2011 13:54:12 -0600
Subject: Country Today article and land acquisition

Dear Colleagues:

Several of you have emailed me asking about a Country Today article in which I am quoted as inviting dairy farmer John Vrieze to share his ideas on DNR lands that might be sold to help pay to improve other DNR properties. I've been trying to respond on my blackberry, but this communication is more efficient.

First, let me say that someone asked me to take a look at his ideas. I agreed. I would do that for anyone. An open discourse is always a good thing and can lead to new ideas. It can also help reaffirm what we are doing is right.

Don’t confuse my willingness to look at varied ideas as a commitment to them.

Second, Gov. Walker and I fully support our land acquisition and management programs and efforts. I’m proud of them.

DNR’s land acquisition program and properties are fundamental to the quality of life in this state. They are the foundation of our $13 billion tourism and a significant part of our $20 billion forestry industries. They provide the lands which make our treasured outdoor traditions – like hunting – possible. And Wisconsin’s bipartisan Stewardship program, which enjoys widespread public support, is the key to assuring we have the outdoor places Wisconsin needs.

That’s why is it important to protect the support Stewardship enjoys.

Accordingly, we are listening carefully to issues and perceptions raised by constituencies and taking steps to assure Stewardship enjoys continued broad support…
In April, 2011 I asked each of the land management bureaus to develop specific parcel ranking systems to assure we were buying only the best of the best – and to assure we can soundly defend our acquisitions. The Stewardship Fund is at its simplest level sort of like a bonding credit card provided by the people of Wisconsin for us to make land investments on their behalf. When the economy is as sluggish as it is now, we have to be very careful how we use that credit;

For over a decade property planning has not been a priority for this agency…for me it is. We are working on the backlog. It isn’t enough to buy land, we have to plan for its use and development; and
We must provide maximum access to DNR property so that the people who are paying for it can enjoy it. This doesn’t come free. Parking lots, signage, and management take staff hours and money. In past years, while the funding has been made available to acquire these lands, funding was generally not made available for upkeep. While the concept of "buy now, manage later" is a very successful strategy and has been endorsed by successive Legislatures, at some point we have to address management. In the FY 11-13 state budget, the Legislature made $5 million available to help increase and enhance public access. And we are concentrating now on using that money for DNR properties that have no or poor public access and no recognizable signage, and for high profile, high use properties need better access and signs.

To assure a strong Stewardship program into the future, we have to listen to critics. Agriculture remains a top state industry valued at more than $59 billion. It is logical that farmers would be concerned whenever we propose to redirect cropland to recreational or habitat purposes. For that reason, it has always been our policy to consider only the most critical and compelling farmland parcels, and that we avoid removing prime cropland from production. It’s a good policy. We must continue it. In addition, we need to listen to other farm community concerns. And we need to help the farm community understand that when we make purchases today, we’re a good neighbor that pays our share of property taxes.

So what about ideas to sell DNR land to fund management and access costs? Selling specific parcels of DNR land is nothing new. Acquisitions come as a package and sometimes include land that lies outside project boundaries. DNR has traditionally looked at these parcels as a great tool to trade for something more needed for conservation. Sometimes they’ve been sold. There are protections. Any land sold by DNR has to be declared as no longer needed for conservation purposes and has to be approved by the Board. And statute dictates where the money from the sale goes – either to pay off Stewardship debt or into a fund to pay for future acquisitions, so we can’t use the proceeds for management costs. Maybe we should be able to, and having the public raise the question – as Mr. Vrieze did – can help promote a public discussion on this and other ideas to fund our land management needs.

I hope this helps explain the context for my comments. I am honestly happy that a number of you felt comfortable enough to raise your concerns to me. At Tuesday’s Natural Resources Board meeting we are discussing conservation infrastructure and our commitment to public lands in Wisconsin. We’ll show we are paying attention to doing master planning and caring for the properties we currently own, and to buying the best of the best through our scoring and ranking system for grants and acquisitions. Thanks.


Cathy Stepp
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
(() phone: 608-267-7556
(+) e-mail:

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