A few miles north of where U.S. Hwy. 2 separates Ironwood from Hurley, the Montreal River babbles green through the gentle rocks of Peterson Falls before plummeting again down an 18-foot waterfall known, resting at the border between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as it does, as Interstate Falls.
Thanks to a conservation easement agreement, the private owner of this land has for a long time made the falls open to the public for hiking and recreating, one of many tourist attractions offered by a Wisconsin that is bountiful with such natural treasures. Now as the Northwoods Land Trust prepares to make an offer to purchase the falls and surrounding lands, the proposed biennial state budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 may pose a threat to the future of Interstate Falls as a public resource.
Bryan Pierce is the executive director of the Northwoods Land Trust. The budget proposal, he says, is endangering the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, a program that helps provide funds for state conservation organizations to purchase lands for recreating and habitat preservation, as well as for productive land. The budget proposes “prohibiting purchases from the Stewardship subprogram for land acquisition until the ratio between total amount expended from that program and debt service reaches a ratio of $8 of cumulative expenditures for every $1 of debt service.” It is estimated that it will take until the year 2028 to reach this point.
“Everyone who is interested in public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, birding or just enjoying natural scenic beauty should be deeply concerned about this proposal,” says Pierce.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, established in 1989 to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, takes its name from two former governors – a Republican and a Democrat. Gaylord Nelson presided over the state from 1959 to 1963, and later became a United States senator. Although he strongly advocated for civil rights and was outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War, Nelson is best known for his environmental efforts, and for founding Earth Day. Warren Knowles served as lieutenant governor during one of Nelson’s terms, and later served three terms of his own. Most notable for his efforts to improve statewide environmental practices and his love for sport, Knowles is a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
Pierce explains that the program’s namesakes both understood the importance of purchasing lands for conservation as public resources despite their differing party affiliations. “When the program’s funding was expanded and made available, it was named after the two governors as a sign of bipartisanship.” The program has received bipartisan support since the foundation of the fund, but now seems likely to be another in a series of recent casualties of party line votes in Wisconsin.
State Senator Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin’s 12th District, which encompasses much of the northeastern part of the state, says that while the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been very beneficial to the area, “the tab has continued to accumulate to where we have a significant amount of debt, and I think we need to see some reforms to the program.
“It has been a very important program for the last twenty-five years to protect some areas that most of the public agrees are important to save, in particular the Rainbow, Willow and Turtle-Flambeau flowages,” says Tiffany, a Republican from Little Rice. “But we owe a billion dollars over the next twenty years. Debt service comes to $1.5 million per week to pay off.” Tiffany says he supports the governor’s proposal to take a “time out” for a few years and pay down some of the debt, especially in light of other needs.
Bryan Pierce thinks that it is short-sighted to cut off the successful and popular program for more than a decade. “Tourism is the Number Two source of state income. Investment in the stewardship fund is an investment in tourism and an investment in the state economy.” Still, he says, Gov. Walker’s proposed budget has more dire consequences in relation to the Department of Natural Resources. “The stewardship plan is very critical to our own organization, but other policy changes affecting the DNR should be of great significance and importance, particularly to anyone interested in preserving their own lake.”
Between 2016 and 2017 the proposed budget would slash nearly $25 million from the DNR’s current budget. Along with budget cuts, 66 positions within the department would be eliminated, including a large reduction of research initiatives, some of which are long-term research projects aimed at protecting lakes and monitoring invasive species. The plan has been interpreted overall as a loss of autonomy for the department.
Pierce emphasizes that the costs of land purchases are far outweighed by their economic benefits. According to him, what amounts to roughly $89 million annual debt service supports a $20 billion forest products industry, a $10.8 billion tourism industry, and a $12 billion outdoor recreation industry, including a $4 billion economic impact from hunting and fishing alone. He adds that, like any property, purchases are paid down as with a mortgage over 30 years or so.
For Sen. Tiffany, the 13-year moratorium on stewardship funding is a result of budgetary decisions and weighing “needs versus wants.”
“The question constituents have posed is: ‘Are you going to fund transportation, or are you going to buy more land?’ ‘Are you going to fund health care and senior care, or are you going to buy more land?’ Most would prioritize education, transportation and health care.”
Tiffany dismisses the notion that halting the stewardship fund would affect the state’s tourism industry. “We have so many wonderful tourist attractions for people in the state. Almost twenty percent of our land is publicly owned,” he says. “There are so many wonderful opportunities to recreate that won’t just go away.”
Bryan Pierce fears that if Knowles-Nelson funds are unavailable to purchase the 38-acre parcel of land surrounding Interstate Falls now, it could be generations before the public again has the opportunity to enjoy this slice of Wisconsin’s scenery. A balance with nature for its intrinsic beauty and habitat conservation is necessary, according to Sen. Tiffany, but at this point in time, part of that balance is making sure children are educated. “At this point, my first priority is education.”
The proposed budget, along with major cuts to the DNR including the stewardship foundation, has recently caused an uproar over large cuts to the University of Wisconsin system. Surely as the Montreal River tumbles over Interstate Falls, civic debate over the proposed budget will continue to rage long after it is ultimately decided in the statehouse this summer.
Matt Persike lives in Rhinelander. His articles also appear in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Northwoods Commerce magazines.