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Conservation Fund buys 70k acres of land in Oneida County to fill ‘conservation gap’

The Conservation Fund recently bought 70,000 acres of land in Oneida County and is working to put conservation easements in place.
Jay Brittain
The Conservation Fund
The Conservation Fund recently bought 70,000 acres of land in Oneida County and is working to put conservation easements in place.

The Conservation Fund recently purchased the largest, unprotected forest in Wisconsin.

It’s 70,000 acres of land in eastern Oneida County.

“This property’s been on the radar screen of a lot of conservation groups and the Wisconsin DNR for a long period of time. When you look at the big map of the state of Wisconsin. This is the largest unprotected, intact, commercial forest remaining in the state,” said Clint Miller, the Central Midwest Regional Director for the Conservation Fund.

The group is a national non-profit that buys land to conserve it for forest management and recreation.

Looking at a map, the land is located just north of Pelican Lake. The Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest is to its northwest and Oneida County Forest Land sits to its southeast.

“There’s this big gap in between,” said Miller.

That gap, now called the Pelican River Forest, will now be protected from development.

To put that into perspective, those 70,000 acres make up roughly 8% of all of Oneida County. In addition to the forest stands, the land features 68 miles of streams and 27,000 acres of forested wetlands.

Working forest & recreation opportunities

The land, which used to be owned by the Forestland Group, was used for logging.

That’s not going to change says Miller.

“The difference between us and them and us is we’re looking for a conservation return,” he said. “We’re looking for sustainable forest products as well as the recreation that helps drive the economy up here in Oneida County.”

“I’m really excited that it’s happening. It will be good for our county,” said Jeff Verdoorn, the Executive Director of the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation. He’s also been part of the paper industry for 35 years.

“My view, largest forest tracts are fairly rare, and they have value like, they’re kind of an entity of their own. If you start breaking in up and making small tracts of it loses those attributes of a large tract of land,” he said.

Verdoorn says much won’t change from a logging standpoint.

What it will do is create much more accessible land for outdoor recreation of all types.

That’s a big deal for a county like Oneida that regularly sees tourists spend more than $220 million each year, tourists who largely visit for the recreation opportunities in the Northwoods.

“You’re going to maintain the value of large tract of land and you’re going to have access to it by the public and you’ll still maintain logging and good forest practice management.”

Though Miller urges to be patient on the recreation side.

The land has been open to the public through the Managed Forest Law program, but that didn’t mean it was accessible.

“What people will see changing when the easements are in place is some of those gates will be unlocked for six months of the year. So that the public will have access to interior parts of the property which haven’t been accessible by vehicle.”

Securing conservation easements

The Conservation Fund is working to secure conservation easements on the land so that it will always be protected.

Once those are secure, it will sell the land again.

Katie Thoresen

“We try to buy that land, do the conservation, and then sell the land back out to private marketplace so people can invest in it, and then we’ll move onto another project,” said Miller.

This single project goes a long way towards the Conservation Fund’s goal of preserving up to 5 million acres in the next 5 to 10 years.

The money comes from the group’s Forest Fund.

“They are working on protecting commercial forests across the country. Commercial forests are getting eaten away and turned into non-forest uses. Around here you can think of residential housing for example,” said Miller.

12,000 acres of this land should have its conservation easement set by the end of this year.

Climate resilient

While the prospects for timber harvesting and recreation while be good for the county, there’s another aspect that Miller says will be good the greater public.

“This property has incredible climate opportunities and climate resiliency,” he said.

Miller says the Conservation Fund will be looking at the possibility of doing a carbon project on the property.

There are different types of carbon projects, but the basic idea is to manage a forest to balance out carbon output from other sources.

“The great thing about the carbon market and doing a carbon project is you’re still cutting. This property itself will store 19 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. That’s like taking four million cars off the road,” said Miller.

No matter which reason, Miller is proud to be part of this project to conserve 70,000 acres of land in Oneida County.

“From a conservation standpoint and a wood products standpoint and recreation standpoint, this land really fills in that gap,” said Miller.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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