Since 1989, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been a fundamental tool used to conserve plots around Wisconsin.
Groups interested in preserving natural areas can apply to the program administered by the Department of Natural Resources. But larger grants require legislative approval, which can stall projects without much explanation.
North of downtown Milwaukee you will find such a project. The sign along Lake Shore Road, where the town of Grafton meets the town of Port Washington, reads, “If you love this land…you’ll love the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area.”
From the road, the plot looks like farmland with a very soggy spot where geese hang out, but Tom Stolp says to look east for treasures. “This property is really special – it has the characteristic of the natural groove; it has clay seepage cliffs with 110-foot high cliffs overlooking Lake Michigan, but there is also the presence of restorable wetlands,” he explains.
Stolp is executive director of Ozaukee Washington Land Trust. The trust endeavored to purchase and retain the 131-acre parcel.
Stolp says Cedar Gorge has value beyond the public being able to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan and descend the cedar-rich gorge.
“Because we are going to restore some of these wetlands; and with these wetlands, not only does it improve the hydrology around Lake Michigan, but it also creates an important area of resting habitat for these migrating birds. So it all adds up to a really unique opportunity,” he says.
We weave our way around the low growing native juniper to a breathtaking view of the lake.
“You will see that a lot of the treeline was unfortunately made up of ash trees, so pretty much decimated by the emerald ash borer. But that’s part of the reason we’re getting support from the US Forest Service, it’s an area that could really be revitalized and reforested to improve the tree canopy here,” says Stolp.
The Forest Service is not the only federal agency supporting the protection and enhancement of the plot. The same goes for the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But Stolp says local donations form the backbone of the campaign. “Even before we announced publicly that we were raising funds for this project, word spread and we started getting checks in the mail from people saying, ‘Please put this on for the project. from Lake Michigan; I want that to happen.'”
The land trust raised more than half of the necessary funds and successfully petitioned Stewardship Knowles-Nelson to cover the rest. “We were approved for $2.3 million and around the eleventh hour, literally the last day lawmakers can object, we received an anonymous objection to the $2.3 million grant. It was July 2021,” he said.
Stolp’s Eleventh Hour Commentary refers to a nuance of the state’s stewardship agenda. A law enacted in 1995 gives Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee 14 business days to review, approve, or object to grants over $250,000, even after DNR review and approval. Even opposition from a committee member, who is permitted to be anonymous, can reduce or cancel a Knowles-Nelson grant.
READ: Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program Creates More Green Spaces in Wisconsin
Tom Stolp says his land trust was simply told the $2.3 million grant amount was too high. The group had raised $300,000.
“So we went back to the committee members. They said that wouldn’t be enough – the maximum you’ll get is $1.6 million,” he explains.
Stolp says the land trust turned to supporters and raised an additional $400,000. “We said, ‘OK, we can do it, we can do $1.6 million.’ That was January 2022 and we’ve been stuck ever since.”
Stolp’s group learned that an unnamed private interest wanted to buy the plot.
WUWM contacted the co-chairs of the joint finance committee for their comments. At the time this story was produced, we had not received a response.
Meanwhile, Stolp says the land trust is committed to making the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area a reality.
“We had a little boy who brought his birthday money to one of our nature preserves when we were going on an outing, and it’s the people and the kinds of gifts that are the basis of that project and so I think that there will be more philanthropy coming forward, if we can’t get this project through the Joint Finance Committee,” he said.
Ozaukee Washington Land Trust isn’t the only project to go through what Stolp describes as a rigorous review process by MNR staff, only to stall when it reaches the joint finance committee.
He fears that other projects important to the well-being of the public and the natural world will languish.
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