Aspen trees in late fall with bare white skinny branches surrounded by more colorful deciduous trees.

Legislature’s finance committee rejects funding for Wisconsin’s largest land conservation effort

Twelve committee members brushed aside public opinion and concern for Wisconsin's environment in order to cast their votes against land and water conservation.

The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance met and voted along party lines to reject the use of $4 million of Knowles-Nelson Stewardship funds to secure permanent conservation and public access for the Pelican River Forest in northern Wisconsin.

The 12 Republican members of the committee voted against the largest land conservation project in Wisconsin history to conserve 70,000 acres of forestland east of Rhinelander. According to Wisconsin Public Radio, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must now consider other funding mechanisms in order to match a $10.8 million federal grant. 

Does this mean Pelican River Forest won’t be conserved?

Not at all. Legally speaking, the committee’s vote doesn’t mean much. Because the committee failed to schedule a meeting to discuss Pelican River within the 14 day passive review window (which closed on November 18th, 2022), they no longer have any authority over the expenditure.

The DNR has the authority to move forward with using Knowles-Nelson funds to complete the Pelican River Forest. The Conservation Fund (the current landowner) remains committed to conserving the forest.

In reporting by WXPR, the Conservation Fund’s Central Midwest regional Director Clint Miller said, “The Conservation Fund is disappointed by the decision to deny the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the chance to utilize Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program funds for the Pelican River Forest. The Pelican River Forest project is a historic opportunity to advance the public benefits of retaining forests for the critical forest products industry and provide new opportunities for recreation. We are grateful for the overwhelming local public support and will continue working with the Department of Natural Resources to complete this important project.”

Across Wisconsin, 90% of voters support dedicated public funding for conservation. More than three-fourths of voters support the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. And 89% of voters support reforming the Knowles-Nelson legislative review process to eliminate anonymous objections and to require public hearings. That’s according to bi-partisan polling that was just completed by The Nature Conservancy, with assistance from Gathering Waters, a few weeks ago.

Public support for the Pelican River Forest is undeniable. To date, 40 organizations and businesses have signed on to an open letter calling for funding the Pelican River Forest. More than 700 people sent letters to Governor Evers asking him to fund Pelican River and fix Knowles-Nelson. And more than 1,200 people, mostly in northern Wisconsin, signed a petition calling for conservation of the forest.

Featured image by Ken Mattison, 2018.

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