Do you have too many places to go to get away from it all? The tea party Republicans who run the Wisconsin legislature think so.
Last week, the GOP-controlled Legislature's Joint Finance Committee slashed (PDF) funding for the state's Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program for the second time in two budgets. It has now been cut 40% from the $86 million per year approved when the program (PDF) was last reauthorized in 2007 under Democratic Governor Jim Doyle. And, of course, as land prices go up, the decrease in buying power will be even worse than 40%.
The tea partiers argue that as a Wisconsinite you own enough land already. But do you? The Department of Natural Resources (on your behalf) owns only about 4.3% of all the land in Wisconsin and most of that isn't in state parks or trails, but in state forests, which mostly exist for timber production (though hunting and other recreational activities are allowed).
If you add up all the other public ownership in national and county forests and other types of protected status, total public ownership amounts to about 17% of all the land in the state. But again keep in mind that most of that is in forested land that can be cut for profit by private logging companies.
And that 17% of public ownership is exactly half of the national average (PDF) of 34%. Now, it's true that the average is pulled up by Alaska (where public ownership is at 89%) and Western states where public ownership can run between about a third and a half of total acreages. But 17% is not out of whack when you look at neighboring states with economies dependent on high levels of outdoor recreation. Minnesota is at 17.5% and Michigan is over 22%. Even heavily developed New York State is at 36%.
But if the Wisconsin DNR keeps buying up land, won't it eventually own everything? No, not nearly. If the state kept picking up land at the current rate, then a century from now the DNR would own maybe 11% and total public ownership might get up to around 24%, about where Michigan's is today. Again, that's by the year 2113.
And since the DNR can only buy land from willing sellers, the market will tell us when it gets to be too much because there won't be anyone willing to sell their land at prices the state can afford. Why not just let the market tell us when we own too much? Isn't the market what the Republicans are all about?
Let me answer that question for you. No, the free market is not what the modern Republican Party is about. The party is made up of extreme anti-community tea partiers who just want to end government altogether and country club Republicans who think people deserving of a place to fish on a lake should be able to buy it.
But the slash in funding for public outdoor recreation might not even be the worst part of what the Republican radicals are doing to Wisconsin's once proud conservation tradition. I will write more this week about some of the more subtle, but possibly even worse, damage they are doing.