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Stewardship Program to draw eyes in 2011
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As the new year approaches, it's tempting to prognosticate what issues will rise to the top of the agenda for outdoors enthusiasts. Some matters - for example, rule changes and season structures governing hunting, fishing and trapping - will always require some tweaking as game populations fluctuate based on such natural phenomena as a late spring frost, heavy rains during the birthing season or changes in predator populations.

Other, more contentious matters are almost certain to bubble up next year. Perhaps the most obvious regards the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and the troubling trend toward approving purchases where hunting, fishing and trapping are prohibited.

In addition, with budget deficits into the billions of dollars, the cost of the program is destined to come under scrutiny. Stewardship now draws close to $1 million a week for debt service from past purchases, while the state is poised to borrow millions more each year for the next ten years.

The first indication of a possible shake up derives from the mad scramble to get as much property under state control as possible before the new administration takes over in Madison. At the Dec. 7 meeting of the Natural Resources Board, no fewer than 15 donations, purchases or lease agreements were approved.

Meanwhile, complaints mount about efforts to circumvent the requirement to open all land purchased through the Stewardship Program to hunting, fishing and trapping. Here is what 2007 Wisconsin Act 20 (reauthorizing Stewardship) said about access:

"Land acquired with Stewardship Program funding - either by the DNR or grantees - in fee simple (or easement) - must be open to the public for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, cross-country skiing and other 'nature-based outdoor recreation' as defined by DNR rule."

Thusly, Administrative Rule Chapter No. 51, Section 51.05 (2) (a) governing Stewardship purchases prohibits "any property that has restrictions or other covenants that prevent or limit the property from being managed for the conservation or public recreational purposes of the Stewardship Program..."

The camel's head enters the tent, however, by virtue of the Natural Resources Board prerogative to allow restrictions for one of three possible reasons: (a) to protect public safety; (b) to protect a unique plant or animal community; or (c) to accommodate "usership" patterns.

Here is one example of what some claim is a violation of the rule: The NRB recently approved a proposal by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy to purchase approximately 30 acres of land that will then be turned over to the city of Onalaska.

Sandy Heidel of Onalaska contends that city ordinances will prohibit hunting, fishing and trapping and therefore, the funding should not have been approved. The summary presented to the NRB concedes as much, according to her, while pretending to comply with the law.

The summary states; "MVC is not proposing to prohibit any of the five nature-based outdoor activities (includes hunting, fishing and trapping)."

However, the next sentence contradicts the first, says Heidel. "MVC will be abiding by the local ordinance that prohibits the discharge of firearms..."

A slightly different version of the Onalaska model surfaced recently in Jefferson County whereby another non-profit agency hopes to purchase a parcel of land using Stewardship dollars and then turn it over to the county as park land, essentially guaranteeing prohibition of any hunting or trapping activities.

"They want to add as much land as they can," said Mark Judd of Watertown. "We've been going to meetings to try to get them to follow the rules. You have to watch them."

Related to access, more than 20 counties in Wisconsin have established county forests which are open to hunting. Most of these are in northern counties, the southernmost being Vernon County in west central Wisconsin.

Look for both the Governor and legislature to get involved next year. It's assumed Republican Scott Gunderson will take over as chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee while Neal Kedzie will take on a similar role in the Senate.

Meanwhile, folks like Mark Judd in Jefferson County and Sandy Heidel in La Crosse County strive to prevent the continued erosion of hunting rights guaranteed by the Stewardship Program and the state constitution.

"It's a crime what they're doing," says Heidel.

- Lee Fahrney is the Monroe Times outdoors writer. He can be reached at (608) 967-2208 or at