An overhead view of the Wolf River in the Pelican River Forest.

Conservation project sabotaged by anonymous legislator

The Pelican River Forest would be the largest land conservation deal in Wisconsin history.

The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) is at it again. An anonymous legislator, without any public explanation, has blocked the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from completing the largest land conservation project in state history. 

The Pelican River Forest would conserve more than 70,000 acres of private forestland in Langlade, Forest, and Oneida counties for public recreation and forestry. This single project would get Wisconsin more than halfway towards the goal Governor Evers’ set in his executive order calling for 125,000 acres of forestland to be conserved by 2030 as part of the state’s effort to address the climate crisis.

How did this happen?

The last step to approve a Knowles-Nelson project like the Pelican River Forest is what’s known as passive review by the JFC. JFC’s oversight comes after the DNR has thoroughly vetted the project and after the Natural Resources Board approves it. A lot of smart and qualified real estate and natural resources professionals have worked very hard to put together this high-value project for the benefit of Wisconsin residents and visitors. 

Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, the JFC has threatened to scuttle the whole thing. And their secretive approach nearly defies belief. 

A single, anonymous legislator can object to a project for any reason, or for no reason at all. That objection stops the project in its tracks.

JFC’s review process lacks the most basic elements of good governance: there is no transparency, no accountability, and no clear path for an up-or-down vote. Knowles-Nelson projects have languished for years because of a JFC objection.

This arbitrary practice of anonymous objections has to stop.

Please contact your state legislators and the members of the Joint Finance Committee and urge them to lift the objection, approve the Pelican River Forest project, and provide accountability and transparency in the JFC review process.

How do we fix this broken process?

Anonymous, indefinite objections to conservation projects are strangling the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and paralyzing Wisconsin’s efforts to enhance outdoor recreation opportunities, utilize cost-effective natural climate solutions, and strengthen local economies. 

The most important step we can take is speaking up. Lawmakers need to hear that Wisconsinites won’t stand for this abuse of power or the breakdown of basic democratic processes. Lawmakers need to know that their constituents are committed to making sure that Knowles-Nelson works for Wisconsin.

No matter our political party affiliations or where we live, we all share a commitment to good governance and wisely conserving our state’s natural resources.

We at Gathering Waters are working with our allies in the conservation community and champions in the legislature to get to the bottom of this objection and to work toward reforming the review process. We’ll keep you updated on our progress.

Thank you for reaching out to legislators and showing your support for the Pelican River Forest and the integrity of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. We can’t say it enough: Every message counts and our decision makers are listening.

Featured image by Jay Brittain, 2021.

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Midwest Environmental Advocates and Clean Wisconsin, both of which filed amicus briefs in the separation of powers lawsuit, praised the court’s decision that a statute allowing the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) to block Knowles-Nelson projects is unconstitutional.

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