This Land is Our Land

The past and future of conservation funding in Wisconsin

March 2023


From the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior to the banks of the Mississippi River, Wisconsin has a wealth of natural resources and a population who prizes them. From hunting and fishing to camping, hiking, and bicycling, Wisconsinites pursue outdoor pastimes at higher than average rates. The state’s natural resources are also key to its economy, drawing in visitors and tourism dollars and fueling the forest products and waterborne shipping industries.

A look at this landscape finds many positives. As the Wisconsin Policy Forum noted in a February 2021 report, participation in outdoor recreation skyrocketed during the pandemic, with massive jumps in the number of visits to state parks and first-time fishing licenses purchased. In part because the state provides many outdoor recreation opportunities across both public and private lands, these new participants found new pastimes and new places to enjoy them. It is difficult to find metrics that do not show a strong increase in outdoor recreation over the past two years.

Yet the state’s heritage also faces challenges, from climate change to urbanization, development, invasive species, overcrowding in some parks, and changing patterns in outdoor recreation itself. Historically, the state has responded to threats like these with innovative conservation programs championed by prominent figures such as Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, and Warren Knowles.

Conservation and parks programs are meeting with difficulties in adapting to these latest issues, in part because of funding. Tax revenue for conservation and parks in Wisconsin has steadily eroded over decades, leaving the state more dependent on user fees and borrowing to finance both public land purchases and ongoing operations. Now, threats are emerging for these sources as well.

In light of these challenges, this report explores new options for funding conservation. Sponsored by Gathering Waters, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, Godfrey & Kahn, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, the Audubon Great Lakes, and the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region, the study reviews Wisconsin’s natural assets and rich history of outdoor pursuits, the state’s current conservation financing mechanisms, and approaches used in other states. Though the revenue streams funding environmental regulation lie largely outside the scope of this report, our findings do have a limited bearing on environmental quality as well.

Our key research questions include:

  • What are the assets and needs in Wisconsin for conservation and outdoor recreation?
  • How do levels and types of state and local spending and revenues in the areas of natural resources and parks in Wisconsin compare to other governments around the country?
  • What approaches used in other states could Wisconsin consider?

Though perhaps not unique, Wisconsin stands out as a state with both a tremendous conservation legacy and exciting opportunities to build on it. This report does not advocate for any one approach, but instead presents a number of alternatives. We hope policymakers will find value in them as they consider how to make the best use of this inheritance today and hand it down intact to future state residents.
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Media Coverage

"State tax funding for conservation and parks has steadily eroded over decades" [1]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Wisconsin land conservation funding seeing ‘steady erosion’" [2]Spectrum News
"Report shows outdoors funding imbalance: Wisconsin collects lots in fees, lags in park funding" [3]CBS-58 Milwaukee
"Milwaukee County Parks budget crisis, funding flat for decades" [4]Fox 6 TV - Milwaukee
"More people seek outdoor recreation in Wisconsin as state funding for conservation declines" [5]WXPR-FM Rhinelander
"A new report looks at outdoor recreation and land conservation in Wisconsin. Here's what it says about how we rank with other states" [6]Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Wisconsin Land Preservation Funding Sees ‘Constant Erosion’" [7]LocalToday
"Wisconsin funding for conservation and DNR dropped" [8]WBAY 2 - Green Bay
"State tax funding for conservation and parks has steadily eroded over decades" [9]Wausau Pilot & Review
"Tourism leaders pitch lawmakers for permanent staff, funds for Office of Outdoor Recreation" [10]Wisconsin Public Radio
"DNR secretary says agency will examine internal review process under state's land purchase program" [11]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Pelican River Forest controversy draws attention to future of conservation in Wisconsin" [12]WUWM - Milwaukee's NPR
"Wisconsin’s Largest Conservation Project Stuck in Limbo" [13]Urban Milwaukee
"Largest land conservation effort faces uncertain future as groups struggle with access to Stewardship funds" [14]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Evers authorizes use of unspent bonding authority under stewardship program" [15]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Wisconsin state park stickers could remain valid for 12 months after purchase under new bill" [16]Milwaukee Journal Sentinel