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Pelican River Forest in limbo after lawmaker anonymously objects to funding

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.

In November of 2021, Clint Miller walked along a leaf-covered logging road through the Pelican River Forest.

He’s the Central Midwest Regional Director for the Conservation Fund, a national organization dedicated to buying land with the goal of conserving it for forest management and recreation. At that time, the group had recently closed the deal to purchase the property.

Back then, Miller was optimistic about the potential of the forestland for logging, recreation like hunting and hiking, and especially its importance in the fight against climate change.

“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.

Now, that optimism is tinged with disappointment.

“The decision by the Joint Finance Committee to fund the project at this time is disappointing. This project is a historic opportunity for the citizens of Wisconsin that strengthens the state’s recreation and forest economy,” said Miller.

The 70,000 acres of woods, wetlands, and rivers meant to be a crown jewel of conservation in Wisconsin are now in limbo because of an anonymous lawmaker on the state’s Joint Finance Committee.

The Pelican River Forest sits mostly in eastern Oneida County pouring over a little in Langlade and Forest Counties.

The Conservation Fund had its eyes on the property for a long time as one of the largest, intact forests in the state.

The Wisconsin DNR had just gotten its board’s approval to use Knowles Nelson Funds to secure easements on the property in October.

Funds that are now tied up in the Joint Finance Committee.

A year-long process

To fully understand the situation, you need to know the process the Conservation Fund has been going through to protect this land.

How the Conservation Fund works is that it buys land, secures easements that will ensure it’s preserved, and then re-sells it.

In this case,in 2021, the Conservation Fund bought the land from the Forestland Group which had been using it for logging.

Katie Thoresen

Shortly after buying it, the group secured conservation easements for about 12,000 acres.

In the year since then, the Conservation Fund has been working with the Wisconsin DNR to secure conservation easements for an addition 56,000 acres.

The cost of those easements is around $15.5 million.

More than $10 million of that was being financed by a national forest legacy grant. $600,000 has been donated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The remaining $4 million was going to be financed through Wisconsin’s Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved the funds in its October Board meeting.

“I think this is a very good acquisition for the citizens of Wisconsin. I think our funding sources are fantastic. When Jim mentions that this is number two in priority across the country, that says a lot about the process and about what our people have done on doing the analysis and presentations of this. I think for northern Wisconsin, I’m the northern rep, this is a very, very good acquisition for Wisconsin,” said board member Terry Hillenberg ahead of their vote on the funding.

Because the project is more than $250,000, it needs to go through the JFC.

And that’s where it’s run into issues.

The public has no idea who objected to the project, no idea why they objected to the project, and we have no sense of what’s going to be done about that
Charles Carlin

The Joint Finance Committee

According to state law, the JFC has 14 days after receiving notice of the funds to respond to the DNR with its decision.

On November 1st, a memo for the JFC chairs confirms a packet of information regarding the property and the funds the DNR wanted to use was received, and lawmakers had until November 18th to raise any concerns or have the committee formally meet to consider it.

On November 21st, then-DNR Secretary Preston Cole receiveda letter from the JFC chairs saying in part, “An objection has been raised to this request and a meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance will be scheduled. Therefore, the request is not approved at this time.”

That statement has put funding for the Pelican River Forest project on hold with no clear path forward.

“All we know is that a member of the finance committee objected to the project. The public has no idea who objected to the project, no idea why they objected to the project, and we have no sense of what’s going to be done about that,” said Charles Carlin. He’s the director of strategic initiatives for Gathering Waters, Wisconsin’s alliance for land trusts.

The Conservation Fund is one of their member land trusts, so they’ve been supporting the Pelican River Forest project.

Carlin is frustrated with the JFC on several levels.

First, he says they’re breaking state law by not scheduling a meeting.

State law regarding JFC approval of the funds says, “The department may not obligate from the appropriation under s. 20.866 (2) (ta) for a given project or activity any moneys unless it first notifies the joint committee on finance in writing of the proposal. If the cochairpersons of the committee do not notify the department within 14 working days after the date of the department's notification that the committee has scheduled a meeting to review the proposal, the department may obligate the moneys. If, within 14 working days after the date of the notification by the department, the cochairpersons of the committee notify the department that the committee has scheduled a meeting to review the proposal, the department may obligate the moneys only upon approval of the committee.”

It’s the “has scheduled a meeting” part that Carlin is keying in on.

If you recall, the JFC’s letter to the DNR stated that a meeting “will be scheduled.”

“The Joint Finance Committee is not following the rules that they created for themselves,” said Carlin.

Then there’s the fact that a lawmaker can even make an anonymous objection to being with. Carlin says it lacks transparency in government.

“Essentially you have a single, anonymous lawmaker who may have just woken up on the wrong side of the bed for all we know,” said Carlin. “They’ve sabotaged and stalled projects. We think that just really runs counter to not only the rules and the law, but the values and norms that we all hold important for the democratic process.”

But perhaps the most frustrating and concerning part of this whole process for Carlin is that this isn’t the first time a potential Knowles Nelson-funded project has played out like this.

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

Not the first time

According to a letter from DNR Secretary Preston Cole to the chairs of the Joint Finance Committee dated March 11, 2022, there were six proposed projects between February 2020 and June 2021 that needed the committee’s approval to use Knowles Nelson funds.

All of them got letters from JFC with the same language: an objection has been raised, a meeting will be scheduled, and the funds will not be approved at this time.

One of those projects was for funds to protect 160 acres of county forest land in the Town of Nashville in Forest County.

The Joint Finance Committee never scheduled a meeting or hearing for these projects.

In August, Governor Tony Evers went around the JFC and used $4.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act money to fund five of the projects listed in Cole’s letter, including the one in Forest County.

While conservationists like Carlin are happy to see those projects move forward, he says it doesn’t solve the larger issue of what’s happening with the Joint Finance Committee, the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program, and the future of conservation in Wisconsin.

“Not knowing when a grant might be approved or might now is having a really chilling effect on the program because so many organizations just say, ‘We can’t deal with this crazy process.’ That means important conservation projects simply aren’t getting proposed. [They] aren’t even coming before the state to be considered because so many groups are just so frustrated with the process,” said Carlin.

WXPR reached out to State Senator Mary Felzkowski’s office about this issue.

The entirety of the Pelican River Forest falls within her district and she’s a member of the JFC.

An email on December 13 with a request for an interview went unanswered. WXPR followed up with a phone call to her office and still have not gotten a response to our request.

As for the status of the Pelican River Forest, Carlin wants to see a public hearing scheduled so that people can have an opportunity to share their knowledge and opinion on why or why not this funding should go through.

“I think that is the pathway forward so that we have an open, transparent debate. Then the committee holds a vote. We know what committee members support the project and what committee members don’t and then it can move forward or not on its merits instead of just having the whole process held up by an anonymous objection with no explanation,” said Carlin.

But until the Joint Finance Committee acts or conservationists find a way around it, the future preservation of the Pelican River Forest remains in limbo.

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