Fishing resources

Natural Resources Council signs off on final milestone in largest land conservation effort in state history

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Council has approved the remaining portion of the state’s largest land conservation effort in state history. On Wednesday, the council approved a $15.5 million conservation easement for more than 56,000 acres in northern Wisconsin.

The property east of Rhinelander is known as the Pelican River Forest. The Conservation Fund, a national environmental conservation group, purchased 70,000 acres of private forest land last year to preserve it for recreational and logging purposes. The Department of Natural Resources worked with the group to secure easements for the site.

“It is quite large in nature. It has quite a diverse hilly topography, a high percentage of mature upland woodland, an excellent network of roads for inland public use also for hiking and hunting,” said Jim Lemke, head of the real estate section of the DNR. “And there are several thousand acres of wetlands and springs, including 6,000 feet of frontage along the Wolf River.”

The council already approved a nearly $4.7 million 12,500-acre easement in the forest last year. The two easements combined mean that the project now exceeds the 65,800 acres of Brule-St. Croix Legacy Forest which was set aside for conservation in 2015, becoming the state’s largest land acquisition for public access. The Conservation Fund will oversee the property with Forest Stewardship Council certification to ensure management meets environmental standards.

Most of the money for the purchase comes from a $10.8 million federal Forest Legacy Grant, while about $4 million will come from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also donated $600,000 for the acquisition.

The project has drawn praise from both conservative and liberal council appointees.

“It’s the biggest plot I’ve ever seen, and I just hope the people of Wisconsin listen and participate because it opens up a lot of public hunting land in the Northwoods,” said Fred Prehn, the former chairman of the board.

“This is a wonderful opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to exploring the area,” said board member Marcy West.

The forest will be open to the public for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing. In total, the land includes 68 miles of waterways and 27,000 acres of forested wetlands that straddle the divide between the Lake Superior and Mississippi basins.

The forest also benefits the climate by storing the equivalent of the carbon emissions emitted by 4 million cars each year. It is also expected to support 775 forest-related jobs, according to the Conservation Fund.

The project will protect the headwaters of the Wolf River as well as the headwaters and tributaries that flow into the Wisconsin River. The DNR said the conservation effort has received support from many groups, including the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and ATV and UTV clubs statewide.

Even so, some members of the Langlade County Board of Directors have expressed concerns about the project.

Sign up for daily news!

Stay informed with WPR’s email newsletter.

“They are concerned about what is happening within their county borders, their tax base and as a result of this they have sent (DNR Secretary Preston Cole) a potentially concerning letter regarding this acquisition,” Lemke said, noting that they had raised issues with a 30-day deadline to weigh in on the purchase.

Lemke said a resolution opposing the acquisition failed at Monday’s county board meeting.

Large land purchases have met with opposition in recent years, as some Republican lawmakers have objected to the removal of large blocks of private land from tax rolls in heavily forested counties in northern Wisconsin. But, the Conservation Fund said the 70,000 acres will remain in private ownership, contributing about $73,000 in taxes each year.

The DNR also acquires public use rights to 50 miles of private wooded roads within the property. About $1 million from the purchase will be set aside in an endowment to maintain them.

Several council members raised concerns about ongoing maintenance costs, including council vice-chairman Bill Bruins. He expressed concerns about whether the funding set aside for road repairs would be enough.

“It’s in perpetuity, that is, forever,” the Bruins said. “So at some point there will be additional costs to maintain this property.”

Council secretary Bill Smith urged the DNR to avoid roads that could prove more expensive to maintain due to erosion or other factors. He also questioned the continued management of timber in the forest.

Ron Gropp, manager of DNR’s Forest Legacy Program, said the agency would prohibit parcel splitting or fragmentation in the forest.

Private forest lands that have become more fragmented have made effective timber management difficult and costly. Meanwhile, loggers in Wisconsin’s $24.5 billion forest products industry, which employs more than 64,000 workers, have struggled with paper mill closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council members also raised concerns about deer management, signage and MNR’s land assessment process. Secretary Cole directed the agency to address these issues with the board within the next two months.

The DNR and its policy-making council do not have the final say on land acquisitions. Any member of the Legislative Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee could still oppose the project. A land conservation effort in Ozaukee County nearly failed after an unnamed lawmaker opposed the deal. Governor Tony Evers later issued $4.5 million in COVID-19 relief to fund five projects that committee members rejected, including for the Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs reservation in Ozaukee County.