Odd Way To Celebrate Earth Day

I used to be a more pure environmentalist than I am now. Still, I think Republicans were dead wrong to block purchase of an easement on land that would become the Pelican River State Forest.

Here’s what happened. A national nonprofit purchased somewhere between 55,000 and 70,000 acres (reports conflict, but it can be fairly characterized as “a lot”) of land east of Rhinelander. The nonprofit’s mode of operation is to protect the land through easements and then hand it off to a governmental entity for permanent care. In this case the price would have been $15.5 million, with $4 million coming from the state Stewardship Fund and the rest from the federal government.

The project was approved by the Natural Resources Board, but Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) objected and that was enough to stop the deal. Last week, just a few days before Earth Day, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee formally voted to sustain Felzkowski’s objection. The deal now seems dead and it’s not clear what the nonprofit will do with the land.

I spend about 40% of my time and most of my summers at a place about an hour’s drive north of this spot. That gives me some appreciation for both the beauty and value of the land but also for the economics of the north woods. So, I wasn’t completely unsympathetic to Felzkowski’s objections and I thought it might be worth a deeper dive.

Felzkowski’s stated objections are economic. She thinks the land should be developed in some fashion and that local governments would get more property taxes under that scenario. But here’s the thing. Much of the land is wet and can’t be developed in any event. The land that might be developable has been in private ownership all this time and hasn’t been developed, suggesting that there are other practical limitations. Cutting timber, the major economic activity on the land, would be allowed to continue under the easement. In addition, a concession was made to allow development along the major roads through the area.

Also allowed would be hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, off-roading and other recreational uses. Given the importance of tourism to the north that would seem to be a big plus and, while some of that may be allowed now, public ownership would guarantee it into the future.

As for property taxes, the land is enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Law program, which limits property tax revenues, but that is made up for in a state payment. That wouldn’t change.

So, what’s Felzkowski’s remaining complaint? She hasn’t really said, so I’ll speculate. One possibility is that mining companies are whispering in her ear. One activity that would be blocked by the easement is mining. The Crandon area, which is just east of here, has been a hotbed of potential interest for mining companies for decades.

Another objection might come from Realtors who want to build and sell lake or river-front lots. Since I own a lake cabin myself, I’m hardly in a position to object to that and, if that’s really the snag, perhaps there’s a way to allow some of that. My own area in the U.P. is a combination of national forest, designated wilderness and lightly developed lakes. It works fine.

But a third possibility is just simply cultural. There are those in the north that resent the intrusion of the DNR and what they perceive as mostly Madison-based conservationists and environmentalists in their backyard. I would guess that that has more to do with it than anything else.

If that’s the case, I get it. I’m not unsympathetic. I feel the same thing when a gerry-mandered, ultra-conservative Republican majority in the Legislature slams its agenda down the throat of my local community here in Madison.

But if we could put resentments aside, the Pelican River project seems like a good deal for the environment, for outdoors enthusiasts of all stripes, for the tourism industry and for local governments. I hope there’s still some way to accomplish it.

Happy Earth Day.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “Odd Way To Celebrate Earth Day

  1. How soon we forget. It was not that many years ago that Wisconsin was known as the national leader in environmental management. Empowered by Tony Earl the State’s environmental managers pioneered a host of environmental measures that assured the residents clean lakes and streams, clean drinking water, clean air, and a host of other measures that Wisconsinites take for granted as an assumed right. Wisconsin’s parks and protected waters and scenic areas were also the envy of the nation. Visitors brought in untold millions of dollars to local economies. The myth of increased revenues from development is persistent but too often, the expected increases are eaten up by the demands of increased services. Environmental protection and conservation requires men and women of vision who truly care about the generations that will follow them. How different from the myopic selfish vision that seems to hold sway in the halls of government.


  2. I know you know this, Dave, but you’ve kind of blurred the line of what happens to the land after the easements are in place. The goal is to sell the land to a private corporation or organization or individual. It will be privately owned.

    By stating that the first step is to “protect the land through easements and then hand it off to a governmental entity for permanent care”, and that, regarding recreation, “public ownership would guarantee (that) into the future” it’s kind of suggesting that the land will be owned by some unit of government.

    The easements are public, yes, and will guarantee public access going forward. The DNR would monitor the easement. But the land will be privately owned. The new private owners will care for the land as if it were their own…because it will be.


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