Public Land in Wisconsin: How Much Is Enough?

 Tom Larson  |    December 01, 2010

When Wisconsin lawmakers reconvene in January to begin deliberations on how to resolve the state’s $3 billion deficit, they will be closely scrutinizing all of the state’s spending and programs to figure out where to cut costs, increase efficiencies and prioritize funding. One of the programs that will likely be evaluated is Wisconsin’s Stewardship Program, which provides funding to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), local governments and nonprofit conservation organizations to make land purchases. 

This article provides an overview of the current inventory of public land in Wisconsin, how the Stewardship program operates and is funded, and some factors to consider when deciding whether Wisconsin should continue to buy more public land.  

Current inventory of public land 

Wisconsin consists of approximately 34.8 million acres of land.  Over 5.7 million acres of this land, or 16.5 percent, is publicly owned and used for parks, forests, trails, and natural resource protection. Note: these statistics do not include the public land used for roads, government buildings, military bases, and college/school campuses.) This 5.7 million acres of public land is owned as follows:

  • Federal government owns approximately 1.5 million acres (4.4 percent of the state’s land area). Almost all of the federal forest land in Wisconsin is located in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
  • State government owns approximately 1.6 million acres (4.6 percent of the state’s land area).  The land is managed by two agencies, the Board of Commissioners of Public Land (who manages lands granted by federal government) and the DNR (managing land owned by the state).
  • County government owns approximately 2.6 million acres (7.5 percent of the state’s land area).

Public land is located in 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, with the most public land located in Bayfield County (464,673 acres). Note: Menominee County does not have any public land, but 98 percent of the land is held in trust by the Menominee Tribe. Twenty counties have over 100,000 acres of public land, while only 12 counties have fewer than 10,000 acres.

Wisconsin stewardship program 

In 1989, Wisconsin created the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program to acquire land for preserving the state’s significant land and water resources and to provide land for recreational facilities. The DNR acquires land through both fee title and easements. Fee title means DNR purchases land directly, holds all land rights, and has complete control over its management.  Easements are created when the DNR purchases some land rights for conservation (such as the right to develop), but the land remains privately owned, and property taxes continue to be paid by the landowner. 

Like other state infrastructure investments such as highways and buildings, the Stewardship program is funded with general obligation bonds. The state sells these bonds to investors and then repays the principal and interest over the next 20 years.  Historically, the debt service has been paid with general purpose revenues, and since 1998 has been supplemented with Forestry funds. However, no hunting, fishing or park fees are used to repay the bonds.


As with any state program, the costs and benefits of the Stewardship program are often debated. Recently, several states — including Maine, New York and Vermont — have either reduced funding or are considering reductions for their conservation programs to address their state budget deficits.  In determining whether to reduce funding for our Stewardship program, Wisconsin lawmakers will likely consider the following: 

Impact on local property tax base: One concern related to the Stewardship program is the impact on local property taxes given that much of this land is taken off the property tax rolls.  However, when acquiring public land, the DNR makes annual payments in lieu of property taxes to the municipality where the property is located.  The payment in lieu is based on property taxes that would have been paid and is adjusted annually for changes in value. Thus, DNR land acquisition should not lower property tax revenues. Moreover, if the DNR acquires land that was previously tax exempt, the DNR is still obligated to make property tax payments, which would provide additional revenue to the local municipality. 

Purchase price for land: The DNR is often criticized for paying too much for public land. However, when comparing the average purchase price paid by the DNR and statewide equalized values during the same time, the two numbers appear consistent. (Equalized value is the estimated measure of market value of land within the state.) For example, in 2006, the DNR paid approximately $2,500 per acre, while the equalized value of land in Wisconsin was approximately $2400 per acre. Note — the DNR often purchases unique land with higher values (e.g., along lakes and rivers).

Taxpayer benefits: The use of taxpayer funding to acquire more public land is controversial, especially in tough economic times.  Over the last 20 years, the total general obligation bonding authority of the Stewardship program has been over $1.6 billion. In 2010, the Stewardship program had about $86 million in bonding authority. Although significant cuts have been made to other areas of state funding (state school aids were cut by $150 million), Stewardship funding levels have remained unchanged since the annual bonding authority was increased from $60 million to $86 million in 2007. 

While the value of conservation programs are often questioned, some argue that public land provides valuable tourism dollars and other quality of life benefits to the state.  Each year, nearly 14 million people visit state parks, forests and trails, generating millions of dollars for local businesses and state and local tax revenues. Moreover, employers often market our parks and recreational spaces when trying to attract new employees to Wisconsin. 

For more information on the Wisconsin Stewardship program, please contact Tom Larson ( at (608) 240-8254.

Note: The statistics in this article were from “Public Conservation Land in Wisconsin,” The Wisconsin Taxpayer, August 2009, Vol. 77, No. 8.

Tom Larson is Chief Lobbyist and Director of Legal and Public Affairs for the WRA.

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