Evers goes around GOP to secure grant for largest land conservation purchase in Wisconsin history

Posted at 9:51 AM, Jan 24, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-24 10:51:20-05

MADISON (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that he has secured federal money to complete the largest land conservation purchase in Wisconsin history, going around Republicans in the Legislature who had blocked the project.

The state Department of Natural Resources planned last year to spend about $4 million from the state's Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to help finance the purchase of the nearly 70,000 acre property east of Rhinelander in northern Wisconsin known as the Pelican River Forest. The U.S. Forestry Service had agreed to pay the remaining 75% of the easement.

Republicans on the Legislature's budget committee in April blocked spending stewardship dollars on the project. Sen. Mary Felzkowski, one of the lawmakers who objected to the project, said she was worried about the effect removing that much land from future potential development would have on northern Wisconsin's economy. The GOP has long criticized the stewardship program because it removes blocks of private land from local tax rolls and prevents development.

Evers announced Tuesday in his State of the State address that the U.S. Forestry Service's Forest Legacy Program would fund the state's share of the easement, thereby getting around the Legislature's budget committee.

The rejection of that project was cited by Evers in his lawsuit filed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in October arguing that the Legislature is obstructing basic government functions.

The Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based national land conservation group, owns the land. The easement guarantees the land will be left in an undeveloped state with public access for hunting, fishing, trapping and motorized recreation such as snowmobiles and four-wheelers.

Clint Miller, central Midwest regional director for The Conservation Fund, called it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect nearly 70,000 acres of forestland."