DNR seeks 10-year stewardship renewal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials are asking Gov. Tony Evers to renew the agency's contentious land stewardship program for another decade and substantially increase its borrowing authority.

The DNR uses stewardship funding to purchase land for the state and help conservation organizations purchase land. Republicans have criticized the program for running up too much debt and taking too much property off tax rolls. Debt payments stood at nearly $83 million last year. Still, GOP legislators agreed to extend the program through mid-2022 and authorized it to borrow up to $33 million annually.

The DNR's 2021-23 budget request to the state Department of Administration seeks to extend the program through mid-2032 and increase its borrowing authority to $50 million annually.

“We're just thrilled to see the DNR leadership support the program like that and certainly urge the governor to include that proposal in his executive budget,” said Mike Carlson, executive director of Gathering Waters, an association of nonprofit organizations that use stewardship grants to purchase and protect land.

GOP leaders didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment on the request.

Evers will use the DNR's request as a starting point as he drafts his executive budget. The governor will release that plan early next year and the Legislature's finance committee will spend most of the spring revising it.

The DNR's request seeks only a 0.3% overall increase in total agency funding as the department braces for the coronavirus pandemic's economic fallout. Evers has ordered state agencies to cut a total of $320 million from their operations since the pandemic took hold in March.

The request doesn't seek any new money to combat PFAS pollution. The Marinette region in particular has been grappling with PFAS contamination for several years originating largely from a fire-fighting equipment manufacturing plant in town. Last week the DNR warned people not to eat the livers of deer harvested in the area because they're likely contaminated.

Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican who co-chairs the finance committee, has criticized the lack of funding, issuing a statement Friday saying the DNR could have come up with the money by drawing from other environmental management accounts. DNR officials didn't immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on Nygren's complaints.

PFAS are man-made chemicals found in a wide variety of products, including fire-fighting foam, non-stick cookware and fast-food wrappers. Research suggests the chemicals can cause a range of health problems in humans.

The DNR is currently drafting limits on PFAS in groundwater and drinking water. Agency officials project those standards won't be ready until the summer of 2022, however.

The DNR's board in August tabled proposed restrictions on firefighting foam containing PFAS after the state's business community balked at estimates that containment and disposal components of the rules would cost $2.3 million annually.

The department drafted the regulations in response to a law that Evers signed in February that bans the use of firefighting foam except in emergencies and testing at facilities with DNR-approved containment and disposal protocols. Nygren sponsored the bill that led to the law.

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