Two whitetail deer peeking out from behind a thick tree in a snow covered forest,

Anonymous legislative objection holds up massive Northwoods conservation effort

The future of the Pelican River Forest is unclear after an anonymous objection by a lawmaker on the state's Joint Finance Committee.

The future of the state’s largest land protection deal, the purchase of the Pelican River Forest, is up in the air after an anonymous objection by a member of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Laura Schulte for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains what’s happening.

The Conservation Fund currently owns the land known as the Pelican River Forest, which is the “largest remaining unprotected block of privately owned forest in Wisconsin.” The organization is looking to sell conservation easements for the property to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The deal would be funded in part by the DNR’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

According to Clint Miller, central Midwest regional director for The Conservation Fund, “It’s creating or facilitating a block of over 1 million acres of conserved land. It’s an opportunity for the citizens of Wisconsin to have a permanently protected piece of property that will provide conservation benefits, air quality benefits, water quality benefits and climate benefits, as well as public access.”

The DNR has been interested in the Pelican River Forest for about 15 years and wants to work with The Conservation Fund to “preserve the land for both recreation and sustainable logging.”

Funding from the Forest Legacy Program has been secured and will pay for about 75% of the easements, said Jim Lemke, the real estate section chief at the DNR. The bulk of the remaining funding is meant to be procured through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, covering about $4 million for 56,259 acres.

Despite receiving unanimous support from the state’s Natural Resources Board, the deal is halted due to an anonymous objection by a single member of the Joint Finance Committee.

“Several municipalities have passed resolutions or otherwise expressed strong opposition to limiting development for future generations,” Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said in a December joint statement. “Most, if not all, of the land included in this project is already publicly accessible for hunting and other recreation.”

In this case, the objection isn’t anonymous. Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk has publicly stated that she was the legislator who raised the objection. She feels there is already enough land conserved in northern Wisconsin, and does not like the idea that the land could never be developed in the future.

Sen. Felzkowski spoke with WXPR about her concerns. Listen to the interview here.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an unusual situation. Last year, an anonymous member of the Joint Finance Committee objected to a Knowles-Nelson grant for the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Preserve in Ozaukee County. The Pelican River Forest is yet another example of a broken legislative process, but because of the size of the project, more attention is being given to the situation.

The future of the Pelican River Forest is uncertain, but for now the Conservation Fund will keep the property until the DNR can purchase the easements. But this doesn’t mean forever.

“We’re all stuck guessing,” said Charlie Carlin, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Gathering Waters. “It’s a mystical process, how something actually gets resolved, you know. And it seems like it’s just a real breakdown of basic democratic norms.”

Featured image by Ken Mattison, 2018.

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