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Joint Finance Committee discusses the Pelican River Forest project process during meeting to deny funding

Katie Thoresen

The Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee denied state funding for the Pelican River Forest project during its meeting Tuesday morning.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved in November using $4 million dollars from the Knowles Nelson Fund to purchase conservation easements on roughly 56,000 acres.

The funding had been tied up in the JFC for the last five months after lawmakers anonymously objected to it.

The debate among lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee over the Pelican River Forest tended to be less about the project itself and more about the process the project has gone through.

As WXPR reported in January, a lawmaker on JFC anonymously objected to the Pelican River Forest and the committee didn’t set a meeting, despite state law directing them to do so.

It wasn’t the first time a Knowles Nelson-funded project that needed JFC approval when through this process.

Democratic State Representative Evan Goyke urged the committee to change its rules when it comes to anonymous objections and set a frame for setting meetings.

“There’s a tension here. I’ve not been part of a hearing like this in my four or five years on this committee,” said Goyke. “This hearing, the essence of it really is the ‘uh oh. We’re going to get sued for not following the law hearing, so we need to dispense of all the objections that have been languishing through the form of a pocket veto that is the objection process on the Joint Finance Hearing.’”

Republican State Senator Mary Felzkowski was one of the anonymous lawmakers who came forward after WXPR’s reporting on the issue.

In Tuesday’s meeting, she says she wants to see changes to the process for approving Knowles Nelson projects, but not the way Goyke or Governor Evers have suggested.

“Is the process broken? Absolutely. I am so excited to hear you say that representative because we have legislation that’s going to be coming out that says these projects cannot move forward until the local units of government that are very, very much affected by this and the residents and 100% on board,” said Felzkowski.

An issue that’s come up with this project is if the DNR took local governments’ consideration into account on this project.

Towns only had 30 days to respond to the DNR before the Natural Resources Board voted on it.

Monico and Sugar Camp passed resolutions opposing the project, but they never made it to the board before its vote to approve the project.

Republican Representative Mark Born says this is an example of why JFC needs oversight on these kinds of projects.

“The DNR should be embarrassed. They should be ashamed for what they did on this project,” said Born.

Since the NRB approved the project, Monico and Sugar Camp have each passed a second resolution opposing the project.Hazelhust has also passed one opposing it.

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

Democratic State Senator Kelda Roys wanted JFC to hold a public hearing on the issue.

“It shouldn’t just be individual lawmakers talking to each other and making deals out of sight of the people who are going to be affected by the projects and the citizens of Wisconsin who are going to benefit or not and are going to pay for this,” said Roys.

Senator Felzkowski says she’s spent the time since the JFC first objected to the project talking to people on both sides of the issue.

The land is currently owned by the Conservation Fund. Its goal in the project was to buy the land, secure easements, and then re-sell it as it does with projects all across the U.S.

The conservation easements are meant to keep the large tract of land intact and secure the land for recreation, forestry, and climate resiliency.

Conservation easements had already been purchased on about 12,000 acres of the Pelican River Forest.

More than $10 million of funding outside the state had been secured, the funding before the JFC was for the remaining $4 million.

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

In response to the JFC’s decision, the ConservationFund’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 project.

WXPR reached out to the DNR for comment. It has not responded.

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