The Past and Future of Conservation Funding in Wisconsin

A summary document prepared by the Wisconsin Policy Forum

  • Wisconsin has a wealth of public lands and waters – approximately 6.6 million acres or 17% of the state’s land is open for public recreation.
  • The popularity of public lands boomed after the onset of the pandemic. Visits to state parks alone in Wisconsin reached 22.2 million in 2021, a 27.2% increase over 17.5 million in 2019.
  • Despite its strong reputation for conservation and outdoor pastimes, Wisconsin has seen a steady erosion in state tax funding (also known as General Purpose Revenue) for conservation programs, and for the state Department of Natural Resources more broadly. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), the DNR received $334.3 million in GPR funding in the 1995-97 state budget but only $197.5 million in the 2021-23 budget, a 40.9% decrease even before adjusting for inflation. After accounting for inflation, the tax funding dropped 68.8% from an adjusted $632.2 million in 1995-97 to its current level.
  • Prior to 1995, state parks were funded equally by GPR and fees and other funds but by the 2015-17 budget all GPR funding for the parks had been eliminated, according to LFB. That’s one reason why Wisconsin spent only $19.6 million in 2017 to operate its state parks, or $1.08 per visit, which according to annual surveys from the National Association of State Parks Directors was the lowest in the country.

As you might imagine, this situation places increasing financial pressure on every state park property, park staff, and park-supporting friends groups like Newport Wilderness Society.

Click the graphic to access the summary document
(Access the full report here)