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