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Supporters gather to celebrate Pelican River Forest conservation

Katie Thoresen
Gov. Tony Evers visits the Pelican River Forest.

In March 2020, the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, Menominee Nation and others marched from Mole Lake to what is now the Pelican River Forest as part of a “Water Walk” in opposition to possible metallic sulfide mining in the Schoepke area.

They were concerned about the potential environmental impact of a mine, especially on the nearby Wolf River.

Standing where he stood four years ago, Ron James recalled the memory for a new group gathered there Wednesday of conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, and Governor Tony Evers.

“We came back a couple of weeks later, and all the trees were gone,” James told the group. “We had tied tobacco and prayer offerings to the tree branches, and then we came back, and they were in the mud.”

In September 2020, Badger Minerals announced it wasn’t going to pursue further mining exploration in that area.

Tina Van Zile is the Environmental Director for the Sokaogon Chippewa Community. She says the practice of tobacco and prayer ties has been used for all different kinds of projects.

Van Zile quoted one of their elders, Fran Van Zile, that spoke at the 20th anniversary of the Crandon Mine purchase.

“She said that way back when the Crandon project, the president said ‘Frannie, do you really think those tobacco ties are going to do anything?’ She said, ‘You just watch.’ They do. You know, there's power in that. We believe that and so look at where we're at today,” said Van Zile.

Katie Thoresen

Today, the land that may have once been heading toward being a mine is now part of a 70,000 acres conservation easement.

The Pelican River Forest will be protected for its climate resiliency, protecting the Wolf River watershed, wildlife habitat, logging, and recreation like hiking, ATVing, and hunting.

Charlie Carlin is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Gathering Waters, Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts. His group worked with a coalition to gather support for the project and advocate for the conservation easements on the land.

“It's just such a wide array of people who all come together because they care about clean water, and they care about protecting our forests,” said Carlin. “I feel like we really got to show that today, and that this is the kind of work that we can all agree on.”

Getting this project conserved was not without its challenges.

As WXPR previously reported, The Conservation Fund bought the land in 2021 with intention of placing conservation easements on it and then reselling it.

The project had support from local tribes and town governments, ATV and snowmobile groups, and those in the forestry products industry among others.

It did have some opposition from some local governments who were concerned about the impact on the tax roll and future land use.

Katie Thoresen
Gov. Evers meets with people that worked to get the conservation easement purchases to go through.

The land will remain privately owned and therefore taxable.

The Conservation Fund worked with the DNR to remove parcels along Highways 45 and 8 in Monico from the easement agreement so they could be developed in the future.

In April 2023, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee denied using Knowles Nelson dollars for the DNR to purchase the easements after it sat in limbo for months.

Governor Tony Evers ultimately went around the JFC and announced the funding had been secured using federal funds during his State of the State Address in January.

Evers told WXPR during his visit to the Pelican River Forest Wednesday that it was an important purchase and one that will have a lasting impact.

“This is something that will last forever. There's very few times that the legislature, Governor, anybody can say that. These folks can,” said Evers.

This wasn’t the only conservation project the JFC denied Knowles Nelson funding for with little to no explanation as to why.

Evers has since sued GOP lawmakers, challenging their ability to block land conservation purchases.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is currently considering the case.

“We have to have the ability to be the executive branch and the Joint Finance Committee has taken that away in a lot of areas, and it's just wrongheaded. That's why we went to court,” said Evers.

The future of conservation work came up a few times during the hike along logging roads in the Pelican River Forest.

“We're continually trying to fight for these important cultural places and things about our way of life,” said Tina Van Zile.

“There's always more work to be done. We're going to have to renew that Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program again in the next state budget next year,” said Carlin.

While there are challenges ahead, on this day, the people gathered are taking the time to celebrate what was accomplished here.

“This was a tremendous effort by a lot of local people,” said Eric Rempala of Oneida County Clean Water Action. “If this becomes a successful forest, where recreation is a success for not just for hiking, but financially for the county, then other places going forward, I think would be a lot easier. You could use this as an example and we're hoping that's what happens.”

Forest Legacy Program dollars were used to purchase the conservation easements. That program is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund which is funded through offshore drilling receipts.

Ron Gropp is the Forest Legacy Program Manager for the Wisconsin DNR Division of Forestry. He said this particular property has been on the DNR’s radar for at least 10 years.

“One, it's a high priority for us legacy area. Secondly, it was, I think you've probably heard, the last remaining largest contiguous block in the state,” said Gropp. “So for those two reasons, we've always had this desire to put a conservation easement on this block.”

Gropp says the benefits of it being protected under conservation easements rather than becoming state owned is that it remains a working forest that can contribute to the local economy without a lot of state oversite.

“Our role is simply to ensure that the terms and conditions of the easement are being met, and that the conservation values that are being protected by that easement are still being protected,” said Gropp.

The Pelican River Forest is currently owned by The Conservation Fund.

Central Midwest Regional Director Clint Miller says the group will fulfill the requirements of the conservation easements.

Then in the next couple of years sell the land to new owners who will continue those commitments.

 “This is about making sure that what you see here today is what you're going to see here in the future. In my mind, this changes the map, it's the opportunity to really make an impact in a difference,” said Miller.

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