Wisconsin is one of America’s great outdoor states, with one of the nation’s highest rates of participation in hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and outdoor sports. The state abounds in outdoor recreation opportunities, and access to public lands in large part because, over the past 50 years, foresighted Wisconsinites have leveraged more than $218 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars to accomplish everything from building swimming pools in small rural towns to creating world-class trail systems such as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (half of the planned-for 1200 miles has been completed) or the North Country National Scenic Trail. The system of state parks here is second to none, and most are the result of funding from the LWCF.
Public access to some of America’s most extraordinary landscapes such as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has been assured through LWCF grants. As in most parts of the U.S., Wisconsinites who use these places, float the rivers, hunt the forests, fish and swim, snowmobile or ski, often have no idea how these freedoms and these economic engines were acquired – or why all of us are free to use them. Few of us understand how $218 million in LWCF funds over 50 years could translate into the outdoor recreation powerhouse that is modern Wisconsin. With a population of just under 5.8 million people, almost 3 million people hunt, fish and enjoy wildlife watching or related activities here. Outdoor recreation in Wisconsin brings in $17.9 billion annually, and accounts for 168,000 jobs. LWCF is a masterpiece of planning, and the results, from the smallest village park in Jacobs (population 722) to the Forest Legacy Program that protected the Wolf River Watershed in Langlade County, are an integral part of the quality of life in Wisconsin.
But the visions and hard work of the past half century cannot be counted on to continue to produce the kind of lifestyle and economy that Wisconsinites know right now. Unless the LWCF is reauthorized and sufficiently funded (current planned funding cuts – actually, the taking away of money that belongs to the people of Wisconsin – are so extreme that they represent an evisceration of the LWCF), much of the progress, recreational access and land, water and wildlife conservation that has been heretofore taken for granted will come to an end. Projects like the planned acquisition of private inholdings in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest that will guarantee public access for bass and panfishing, canoeing and camping, and hunting for grouse and woodcock will be lost. The Ice Age Trail will not be completed.
But most of all, the losses will be felt on the largest scale – from ballfields that are never built, historic sites never preserved, fishing access sites that cannot be maintained, and lost access to everything from tennis courts in small towns to elk or black bear hunting on public lands. The loss of LWCF will result in a less prosperous, less healthy, less enjoyable Wisconsin. The vision will be lost, along with the money that belongs to the people of the state.
The Wisconsin Ice Age Trail, credit Wisconsin DNR