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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Pelican River Forest Plan Deserves a Public Resolution

One wonders about the legitimacy of our Legislature when a lone senator or representative can conceal their identity while blocking what’s potentially the largest conservation deal in Wisconsin’s history.

Fortunately, the lawmaker who stalled a plan for $15.5 million in conservation easements on the 56,259-acre Pelican River Forest near Rhinelander found the integrity many of her colleagues lack. And so Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, revealed in early January that she was the one who originally blocked the deal in mid-November.

Assuming its plan eventually goes through, the Department of Natural Resources would sell conservation easements to permanently keep those lands in private ownership and on local tax rolls while allowing public access to hunters, anglers, trappers and other recreationists.

By all known accounts, Felzkowski blocked the plan single-handedly after the DNR submitted its funding request for the Pelican River Forest plan to the Legislature’s joint finance committee Nov. 1. Members of the 16-member JFC, which includes Felzkowski, had until Nov. 18 to raise concerns or schedule a meeting to discuss it.

On Nov. 21, the JFC’s co-chairs — Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam — sent a letter to the DNR vaguely stating: “An objection has been raised to this request, and a meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance will be scheduled. Therefore, this request is not approved at this time.”

Note: The meeting still hasn’t been scheduled. Further, the Born-Marklein letter doesn’t identify Felzkowski, her reasoning, or if “an objection” means she acted alone. The law lets lawmakers object anonymously and without explanation to such proposals.

How is that possible in our democracy? Consider the hypocrisy: If you send an email, text message or handwritten note to a state lawmaker or any Wisconsin agency, your words usually become a public record. Therefore, everything you wrote — intelligent or otherwise — can be shared instantly in print, on TV or radio, or through online news reports.

Granted, most folks don’t care to read the nonsense that others tell lawmakers or agencies, given that it differs little from graffiti on outhouse walls or online forums. But we elect lawmakers to represent our interests, and they’re supposed to operate openly so we can monitor them. By holding them accountable, we separate eagles from weasels.

Yes, it’s unfortunate it took roughly six weeks to learn it was Felzkowski’s torpedo that crippled the conservation easements plan the Natural Resources Board approved in late October. But to be fair, much gets overlooked between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and most JFC members stay submerged after unleashing anonymous rejections. In contrast, Felzkowski surfaced when conservation organizations alerted the media of the skullduggery in late December, and reporters started seeking explanations from JFC members.

Now let’s hope Felzkowski helps salvage the plan soon so the public can continue to benefit from the jobs, recreation, and natural resources the Pelican River Forest has long provided. Those lands include 16 parcels totaling nearly 70,000 acres of industrial forest, mostly in Oneida County, and the rest in Forest and Langlade counties.

The property is 84% forestland, with extensive stands of aspen, conifers, hardwoods and pine plantations. Besides its extensive marshes and 50 miles of roads with a $1 million maintenance fund, the land also features dozens of lakes and 68 miles of streams, including the Wolf River’s headwaters.

The Conservation Fund, a national environmental conservation group based in Arlington, Virginia, bought the 70,000 acres in 2021 from the Forestland Group, which previously bought the property from Consolidated Papers. Those lands have long been enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Land program, and would continue to be logged commercially while providing public access.

The Conservation Fund secured conservation easements for 12,000 of the acres soon after the 2021 purchase. Since then, it has worked with the DNR on conservation easements for 56,259 additional acres, which Felzkowski opposed.

Felzkowski’s office didn’t respond to a recent interview request, but she told Wisconsin Public Radio and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in early January that the plan could financially hurt the area’s small communities. The lands fall entirely within Felzkowski’s Senate district.

She told the MJ-s: “People won’t be able to buy and develop the land, and then we don’t have that access to the private sector that would sustain local services. This gives no options.”

Felzkowski told WPR she doesn’t oppose conservation projects, but thinks the Northwoods already holds abundant public lands. She’s concerned the proposed easements on large properties makes the land “unavailable for development into perpetuity.”

Monico, a town of 300, raised concerns about the conservation easements. Robert Briggs, town chair, told the MJ-S the town doesn’t oppose conserving most of the land and keeping it publicly accessible.

The town, however, prefers to keep lands along U.S. highways 8 and 45 open for development. Briggs said the town met with Conservation Fund representatives in late December in hopes of excluding some of the adjacent highway lands from the easements. Felzkowski told the MJ-S she would listen to new ideas on the easements if they satisfied the municipalities.

The JFC must check off on funding DNR conservation easements through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund if they cost over $250,000. In recent years, however, the JFC has avoided discussions and the spending by sending passive-aggressive rejection letters like the one of Nov. 21, citing an anonymous objection.

In March 2022, former DNR Secretary Preston Cole sent a letter to the JFC co-chairs noting the agency had sent six proposed projects to the committee seeking its approval to spend Knowles-Nelson money. All six projects received identical rejection letters, saying “an objection has been raised,” and that “a meeting will be scheduled.” The JFC never scheduled a meeting or hearing for the projects.

In August, Gov. Tony Evers bypassed the JFC by using $4.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (for Covid-19 relief) to pay for five of the six projects Cole cited.

Would Evers consider a similar work-around for the Pelican River Forest? No one is suggesting that yet, but a project this large and important demands cooperation, not jury-rigs.

Let’s hope the JFC grows up soon and starts working with the DNR to craft adult, business-like solutions.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is trying to buy conservation easements to provide perpetual public access to over 70,000 acres of industrial forest lands near Rhinelander. — Patrick Durkin photo

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