Worrisome enough is the curtailing of Wisconsin’s commitment to land conservation. Another $18-million cut to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship fund, which has ensured public access to and recreation on hundreds of thousands of acres of land, was included in the recently passed 2013-2015 Biennial State Budget. That’s in addition to the paring down of the program two years ago from $86 million to $60 million annually.

But coupled with the deeper cuts is a new and unprecedented program called, oxymoronically, “Motorized Stewardship.” This “nonfiscal” program allows for the first time ATV and snowmobile clubs to get grant money from the state stewardship fund for their development projects, such as building motorized trails. 

After a poorly publicized 21-day public comment period that ended August 9, the Department of Natural Resources is now allowing ATV and snowmobile clubs which turned in grant applications by April 15 to amend their requests to seek stewardship dollars. As soon as mid December, conservation program money could start flowing to the most potentially damaging of recreational activities.
The Motorized Stewardship program requires ATV and snowmobile clubs to contribute 20 percent of the total in grant money they seek, and that match can not come from other state or federal sources, presumably meaning vehicle registration fee and fuel tax funds can’t be tapped. 

“From what I’m hearing, the clubs aren’t enamored with this,” said Mike Bruhn, legislative liaison for the DNR. “I’ve heard that they won’t utilize the grant program because they won’t be able to come up with the 20 percent match.”

In this case, the stewardship grants are intended for development projects, such as parking lots at trailheads, but could also be used to replace washed out bridges that ATV’ers and snowmobilers use, Bruhn said. The money can not be used to buy land, such as a site for an ATV park.

But will the money spent from the stewardship fund on motorized projects lessen the amount available for nonmotorized activities? “I don’t think so, no,” Bruhn said.

Inclusion of the Motorized Stewardship program in the budget, now signed into law, gets around the requirement that all property purchased with stewardship funds accommodate five defined “nature-based outdoor activities”: hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing. Not only are ATVing and snowmobiling not on that short list, hikers and skiers tend to avoid places where these loud machines are present.

Land bought and developed with stewardship funds, the rules state, must “be open to the public to the greatest extent possible for those recreational uses that the land is capable of supporting with a minimum of public investment.”

ATV trails, especially those prone to rutting and erosion, require expensive and ongoing rebuilding. Compare that to the mowing and grooming ski trails require and little-to-no maintenance needed for well-built hiking trails.

Bruhn said the DNR will apply a rigorous set of criteria before accepting any ATV or snowmobile application for the grant money. But now that stewardship funds can and will be spent to promote such activities, is stewardship of public lands truly being served by the agency’s oversight?