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Oneida County passes “disjointed” resolution opposing Pelican River Forest easements

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 bought 70,000 acres of land in Oneida County and is working to put conservation easements in place.

For nearly an hour, two dozen people spoke in favor of Pelican River Forest Project and against a resolution before the Oneida County Board opposing it.

The Pelican River Forest Project is a 70,000-acre conservation project located mostly in Oneida County and partially in Forest and Langlade Counties.

The Conservation Fund, the group which currently owns the land, has already secured conservation easements for roughly 12,000 acres.

It’s still working to secure conservation easements for the remaining land, despite the state’s Joint Finance Committee voting against using Knowles Nelson Funding to do so.

The project would keep the land privately owned. The easements would keep the land from development in perpetuity.

It would also keep the land open for recreation and timber harvesting, and protect the headwaters of the Pelican and Wolf Rivers.

It was for these reasons and others that people spoke during public comment at the Oneida County Board Meeting Tuesday.

“I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to go out there. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t bring it back,” said John Brooks. He grew up in Rhinelander on the Pelican River.

The resolution the board voted on after some amendments tackles a couple of different issues, some specific to the Pelican River Forest property, others not.

Because of that, a couple of supervisors thought the resolution should be broken up into multiple resolutions or sent back to the committee for changes.

“I’m looking at this whole thing and it just keeps getting more and more disjointed, in my opinion,” said Supervisor Tony Rio.

Rio said he supported the parts calling for changes to the DNR’s process, but couldn’t support the resolution as presented given the public support for the Pelican River Forest.

“I just think that it’s too convoluted. It’s too fragmented and it does not reflect the actual consistency of the people we represent,” he said.

The DNR’s handling of the process to secure Knowles Nelson Funding to purchase easements on Pelican River Forest property has been a major issue throughout Oneida County’s decisions regarding the project.

Sugar Camp and Monico both passed resolutions opposing the project, but they never made it to the Natural Resources Board ahead of its vote approving the funding.

The resolution calls for the DNR to extend the 30 days period for municipalities to approve or oppose easements to 90 days.

Even ahead of passing the resolution, Board Chair Scott Holewinski said he’s confident change is coming after a conversation he had with DNR Secretary Adam Payne.

“He guaranteed me that there will be a better process moving forward. That the DNR will be sitting and talking to the affected towns and the affected counties. There will be an extension from the 30 days to 60 or 90 days,” said Holewinski.

Another part states the county doesn’t want any more public land without town or county approval if federal or state funds are used to buy easements.

Despite the resolution objecting to the Pelican River Forest conservation easements, the resolution also calls for the state to buy snowmobile and ATV/UTV trails as well as secure right-of-way access to roads and then deed it all to the county in which those sections reside.

It also wants the state to give the affected counties the endowment funds proposed in the original Pelican River Forest plan for road maintenance.

Supervisor Mike Roach, who is opposed to having any more public land in Oneida County, said opposing the easements in one part but asking for the property owners to sell some of the land for trails and roads in another section is confusing.

“Now you’re saying, if I’m the owner instead of Mr. Miller, this resolution is saying we don’t want the easement on this land, but we do want it for roads. So, Mr. Roach you own all this land. Oneida County wants you to put easements for 4-wheelers. Is that what it’s really saying?” said Roach.

Holewinski says the resolution sends a message to state lawmakers of the changes they’d like to see at the state level and also to the DNR that they want the land to remain in Managed Forest Law and not have any easements.

“I think what the majority of this resolution is saying is that we don’t our MFL land going into permanent easements,” said Holewinski. “We’re willing to have it as MFL land, but we need it for our future tax base is what I believe this resolution is saying.”

The Board voted 12 to 6 in favor of the advisory resolution, with two abstaining and one absent. You can view the resolution here.

The Conservation Fund’s Upper Midwest Regional Director Clint Miller said he was disappointed in the Oneida County Board’s decision, but he took away a lot of positives from the meeting.

“It was all the people that came out. 100% supported this project. They supported the direction the DNR has headed. They support the direction The Conservation Fund is headed. I think really the news here and the excitement is the people that supported it,” said Miller.

The Conservation Fund is still working with the DNR to secure the easements.

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