Budget Blog: How Much Land Does Government In Wisconsin Need To Own?

Stewardship vote today

How much government-owned land is enough in Wisconsin? 20%? 30%? 50%?


The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is scheduled for a vote today in the Joint Committee on Finance. The Finance Committee is finishing up its work on Governor Evers’ 2021-2023 state budget proposal. There is speculation that Republicans on the Finance Committee may try to reauthorize the program past the current end date of 2022 and increase the current bonding limit of $33.25 million a year so government can purchase even more private property and take it off the tax rolls. Given the recent fiscal re-estimate and all the “surplus revenue” laying around, we worry that some Republicans will use it as a convenient excuse to let government purchase more private property because we can seemingly afford it.

That way of thinking deliberately ignores the fundamental problems with the Stewardship Program and idea that the government should be able to buy an unlimited amount of private land.

Wisconsin taxpayers have already spent over a billion dollars allowing government to buy private land.

A billion dollars.

From 2001-2021, Wisconsin has allocated $1,078,859,000 just to pay off the debt service for the Stewardship Program.



State government has used the $1,078,859,000 in taxpayer money to purchase over a million and a half acres of land. As of 2020, Wisconsin State Government has purchased 1,622,300 acres of land through just the Stewardship Program.

DNR = Department of Natural Resources
BCPL = Board of Commissioners of Public Land
KVR = Kickapoo Valley Reserve

Combined with county and federal government conservation acquisitions, 5,946,900 acres of Wisconsin land are publicly owned. That’s 17.16% of all the land in Wisconsin.

Think how high the number of government-owned acres is if you factor in all the different levels of government and all the different programs within the different levels of government that exist to purchase private land.

State government also pays locals for the lost property tax revenue when state government buys the private land.

Finally, there is never a discussion about the end game – when will government own enough property? The state just keeps buying and buying, with no end in sight or even discussed. Are we done once we hit 18% or 20%? How about 30%?