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Joint Finance Committee denies state funding for Pelican River Forest, groups still working to conserve land

Pelican River area in Wisconsin.
Jay Brittain
The Conservation Fund
Pelican River area in Wisconsin.

The Joint Finance Committee denied state funding for the Pelican River Forest Tuesday.

The Pelican River Forest is a 70,000 acres conservation project in parts of Oneida, Langlade, and Forest Counties.

It was bought by the Conservation Fund in 2021with the intention of keeping the large tract of land intact and securing the land for recreation, forestry, and climate resiliency.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved using $4 million of Knowles Nelson Funds to buy conservation easements on 56,000 acres of the project.

That funding request has been sitting in limbo for five months after some lawmakers on the committee anonymously objected to the project.

Republican Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) was one of the objectors.

She says one of her objections to the project was local towns that opposed the project.

“I find it very interesting in this case that the conservation group that we speak about that made the purchase, has a year to year and a half time period to work with to meet with local snowmobile clubs, hunters, and all these groups to get them on board with the project, but yet fails to have a conversation with the local units of government that this very, very much effects,” said Felzkowski.

Monico, Sugar Camp, and Hazelhurst passed resolutions opposing the project.

Rhinelander, Schoepke, Pelican, and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community have passed resolutions in support.

The committee voted 12 to 4 along party lines to deny the funding request.

In response to the JFC’s decision, 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.”

Gathering Waters, a conservation group that has been advocating for the project, is urging the Wisconsin DNR to use the funds despite the JFC’s decision.

The group argues state law allows the DNR to use the funds since the JFC did not schedule a meeting during the 14-day passive review process.

WXPR reached out to the DNR for comment and has not yet gotten a response.

The committee’s debate on this funding was less about the project itself and more about the process it went through.

WXPR will have more details on the process tomorrow.

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