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Great Lakes Article:

View grows that scenic beauty is invaluable
By John Torinus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A consensus is building in Wisconsin about the economic advantage of land protection.

Conventional wisdom has been that economic interests are 180 degrees apart from environmental protection. That adversarial picture is breaking down as citizens in the state come to understand that the state's scenic beauty, its rural character, land, forest and water assets are invaluable.

Surveys have shown that most people in the state - Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative - regard themselves as environmentalists. People may strike different balances between protecting resources and growing the economy, but the common middle ground is much larger than the extremists would have us believe.

Part of the evidence is that perhaps the two most successful environmental organizations in the state are The Nature Conservancy and Gathering Waters, the umbrella for local land trusts.

As a board member of The Nature Conservancy's Wisconsin chapter, I have watched it use its horsepower to pull off larger and larger land deals. The latest was more than 21,000 acres of forestland in the Chequamegon Bay watershed on Lake Superior, the largest such purchase in state history.

Meanwhile, the local land trusts have become a movement of impressive proportions. There are now 55 that cover most of the state, up about a dozen from a few years ago. There are now 45,000 members in the local trusts. They have preserved over 100,000 acres in the state.

These are not adversarial organizations. Indeed, many of their members and leaders are business people. They lobby for their interests but avoid fights and lawsuits. Collaboration with a wide spectrum of interests and partners, including private corporations, is their modus operandi.

Doyle earns big points

The political consequences of this growing movement are obvious to at least some politicians.

Recently, Gov. Jim Doyle made big points with advocates of land preservation when he vetoed an attempt by Assembly Republican leaders to reduce drastically the funding for the Stewardship Fund, an entity launched with the bipartisan endorsement of former Govs. Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson. That fund matches state money with local dollars to preserve natural areas.

At the annual meeting of Gathering Waters, Doyle was given the initial Bud Jordahl Stewardship Award for his support of the fund. He received a standing ovation after he said, "There are only about 60 people in the whole state who wanted to do this (cut the Stewardship Fund).

"It (the veto) is what all of Wisconsin wanted done." Not one citizen had approached him to criticize his efforts, Doyle said.

Doyle is his best when talking about protection of Wisconsin's land, water and forests. "We have inherited just an incredibly beautiful state," he said.

His perception matches that of many other citizens, including enlightened leaders in the tourism industry, who understand that the scenic beauty of the state is its main attraction, not a bunch of billboards and sprawling development at the edge of tourist towns. When is the rest of the industry going to get the message, as other tourism states such as Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii already have?

The principles of Smart Growth that are slowly working their way into the planning of cities, villages and towns across the state are a help. This law requires citizens and leaders in communities to sit down and think about what they would like their communities to look like in the future. But there's a long way to go until Smart Growth is fully in place in 2010.

There are still those who don't get the connection between economic growth and protection of resources, who believe that every square foot of the state should be developed.

Despite those minority sentiments, Smart Growth legislation appears to be safe from several back-bench Republican Assembly people who would roll it back.

It's noteworthy that the Wisconsin Realtors Association, a strong pro-economic development lobby, and the Wisconsin Builders Association are fighting to keep the essence of Smart Growth on the books. These organizations obviously believe their pocketbooks are better off if we protect the state's beauty.

A recent study done for Gathering Waters shows that only one-third of the people who donated protection easements saw their assessments go down. In other words, conservation easements raise values more often than not. Further, people will often pay more to live next to a protected green area.

The use of easements by people who want an alternative to development is increasing in Wisconsin. Twenty were recorded last year, according to Gathering Waters. Expect more in coming years, judging by the requests coming into the 55 local trusts.

The next push will be for the trusts to seek funding for PDRs - purchase of development rights - so they can offer farmers an alternative to development. A farmer can use a PDR to partially cash out without having to get out of farming and subdivide. PDRs have seen limited use in Dane County as a way to preserve rural character and the agricultural economy.

In terms of economic development, business leaders have always stressed quality of life as an important ingredient in their decisions to locate and expand in the state. They know it's essential for attracting and retaining knowledge workers.

It's one reason why business leaders are working to protect the places that make Wisconsin special.

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