Oneida County Board wants more information before making forest project decision
Eric Rempala gives public comment to the Oneida County Board Tuesday in support of the Pelican River Forest easements and against the resolution about it on the agenda. Photo by Katie Thoresen/WXPR
By Katie Thoresen, WXPR
The Oneida County Supervisor from the Town of Monico wants the County Board to voice its opposition to using state stewardship funds for the Pelican River Forest.
It got DNR approval to buy those easements using Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund money, but those funds are currently held up by the state’s Joint Finance Committee.
If funding does come through, the land would be privately owned but available to the public for hunting, hiking, snowmobiling, and ATVing as well as timber harvesting.
For nearly an hour Tuesday morning, members of the public urged the Oneida County Board to support the Pelican River Forest project and reject, or at very least table the resolution regarding it on the agenda.
“The conservation of our water resources is fundamentally dependent on the protection of watersheds,” said Carl Fate during public comment.
One Town of Pelican resident said he moved up to the Northwoods because of the hunting opportunities but those opportunities have dwindled in Oneida County over the years.
“Much of the hunting requires young forests, especially grouse and woodcock hunting which I’ve done. I’ve started hunting in other places, I went to the UP and I went to Forest County where they have Nicolet National Forest. I went over to the Chequamegon and while I was there I met hunters from southern Wisconsin and Illinois who drove right through Oneida County with their tourist dollars to hunt somewhere else,” he said.
“The health of our forests and the health of wildlife habitat really is dependent on the forest product industry. Therefore I support the conservation easement because it does support the forest products industry,” said Ron Eckstein.
Of the 23 people to make a public comment, 22 were against the resolution. One voiced his concern about the lack of information on this project but didn’t support or oppose the resolution.
Concerns and defense of the Pelican River Forest
Republican State Sen. Mary Felzkowski presented to the board.
Felzkowski said she’s not opposed to conservation projects but she has a few issues with this one.
She made several points against buying more public land in Northern Wisconsin since there’s already so much and using Knowles Nelson funds which would add to the state’s debt.
This project would not buy land. It’s to buy easements that would dictate what can be done with the land.
Felzkowski’s main objection to the Pelican River Project specifically is that the easements would be permanent. She talked about how towns already struggle to provide EMS service and taking away future possible developments would hurt communities.
“What changes with the conservation easement? What changes? That land is controlled into perpetuity, not 20 years, not 30 years, like it is with MFL. We’ve even had 50 years for forest products or 50 years under the old program. Perpetuity. Forever. That takes the control out of every local unit of government, every citizen in this area, and every citizen in the state. Perpetuity is a long-time people,” said Felzkowski.
The land used to be owned by forest management groups that kept the land public through the MFL program, but gated roads have blocked some access over the years.
Felzkowski says the current owners could open the gates now, but haven’t. Then later said they likely weren’t open because the logging roads are in poor condition.
The Conservation Fund which currently owns the land, Gathering Waters, an organization that supports land trusts in Wisconsin, and a representative from the DNR also presented to the board in support of the Pelican River Forest project.
DNR’s Real Estate Section Chief Jim Lemke urged the board to support this project as a sound investment saying if the property had better prospects for land use previous owners would have sold to those interests already.
“This property has always been productive forest and most likely will always remain as productive forest. To not vote in favor of this easement, suggesting 25 years from now when this comes out of MFL that somehow that market is drastically going to change, that people are going to be up here developing properties on the 56 thousand acres, I think is a high-risk investment by the county when the immediate economic impact of this conservation easement as spoken by everybody in this crowd today is ready and available for use today,” said Lemke.
The Town of Moncio
Supervisor and Monico Town Chair Robert Briggs created the resolution.
It calls on the board to object to the state removing future taxable land by purchasing conservation and access easements.
Briggs argues in the resolution that it will hurt the county’s economic growth and the future growth of the tax base among other negatives.
“They’re wanting to take 80% of the Monico Township, 81.5% of our township that can never be developed,” said Briggs.
One issue with the resolution is that it has several inaccuracies and misleading statements, according to Gathering Water’s Charles Carlin.
He says the easements would make the land accessible to the public, but keep it privately owned and therefore still on the tax roll.
Carlin also says it wouldn’t add to the state’s debt burden, like the resolution says, because the Knowles Nelson Funds to be used for this project have already been set aside through the DNR’s Segregated Forest Account.
“[It’s] not bonds. That forestry account is funded with general purpose revenue dollars. Those are comprised mainly of income and sales taxes. This is money that the state has already allocated specifically for conservation purposes,” said Carlin.
Carlin shared what he calls false or misleading lines of resolution with the board and WXPR. You can view it here.
Lack of communication
Briggs and Oneida County Board Chair Scott Holewinski both voiced their frustration with DNR about a lack of information about this project.
“All we wanted were simple questions and we couldn’t get an answer. The more I look into it, the more I feel you don’t educate us, but here you are and you’ve got all your lake associations at this meeting to tell us we need more time. The time to talk to the town boards would have been upfront before you bought the properties,” said Holewinski to Lemke.
Their respective town boards, Monico and Sugar Camp, were given 30 days to respond to the DNR’s intent to purchase the easements.
They both passed resolutions against the easements ahead of the DNR Board’s vote last fall where the Natural Resources Board unanimously approved using Knowles Nelson Funds to buy the easements.
Those resolutions were never brought before the DNR Board.
Since funding has been held up for the project, The Conservation Fund has been trying to work with Monico to remove the land along travel corridors from the easement agreement so that it could be developed in the future.
Briggs says he’s now opposed to such a move.
“We did talk about some lands there, but then when it got to our last meeting, I was asked about it and I told them I was against it all. That’s where I stand, just because it takes so much of the town,” said Briggs.
Board members were ultimately split on the resolution as presented.
Some were upset they only had four days to look over the resolution before they were expected to vote on it.
Some said they’d vote yes on it, even with some possible inaccuracies in the resolution, because it would still send a message to state lawmakers that the county was about how this process has been handled.
Others said they’d never be able to support a resolution that wasn’t properly vetted.
“Do we have any obligation as a body to make sure that whatever is in the resolution is accurate? I’m not saying it is or isn’t. I’m just saying, what’s our obligation before we send it on? It’s okay to say it’s not binding, so does it even matter if it’s accurate? Who cares? They’re not going to do anything with it anyway. That’s kind of a piss poor attitude to have as a body, as representatives,” said Supervisor Steven Schrier.
Ultimately, the board unanimously voted to create a committee of up to five board members to research the issue and try to come up with a resolution the board could support.
The issue will return to the full county board at its May 16th meeting.
If it, or an amended version, passes it would be a non-binding referendum. It’s essentially a way for the county board to communicate its stance to state lawmakers on the issue.
The DNR has purchased conservation easements for roughly 12,000 acres of the forest.
Funding to buy easements for the rest of the Pelican River Forest was approved by the DNR but held up by anonymous lawmakers in the Joint Finance Committee.
Senator Felzkowski says she is one of the four objectors in the senate. She didn’t know if assembly members of JFC also objected.
The JFC has not set a meeting date to discuss the funding, despite state law instructing them to do so.