The future of the largest conservation project in Wisconsin history is in limbo after Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) rejected a $4 million state funding proposal for the Pelican River State Forest.
Voting 12-4 on party lines last Tuesday, the committee objected to using the funds from Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program to purchase conservation easements on roughly 56,000 acres near Rhinelander in northwestern Wisconsin. The funds would have matched a $10.8 million federal grant to close a $15.5 million deal that would protect areas around the Pelican River for public recreation and logging.
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (DNR) previously approved state funding in November, but an anonymous objection from a lawmaker in January — later identified as Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) — halted the project.
Despite state law requiring the JFC to set a meeting date to discuss the project, no meeting was set.
With barely 24 hours’ notice on Tuesday, the JFC co-chairs called a meeting to review five projects that had been held up by anonymous objections, including the Pelican River Forest conservation.
In a meeting that included no public testimony, the Republican-controlled committee deployed a pocket veto to kill all five projects, marking the JFC’s latest use of the pocket veto to kill a project without holding a meeting.
Lawmakers on the JFC have increasingly employed anonymous objections and pocket vetoes to stymie proposals from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, with land conservations in the Northwoods especially targeted, according to Wisconsin Watch. A legal memo obtained by Wisconsin Watch revealed legislative attorneys were skeptical of the legality of withholding funding for months without a meeting.
Republicans want locals ‘100% on-board’
Republicans on the JFC voting against the Pelican River Forest last week objected on the grounds that local communities weren’t properly consulted.
According to Wisconsin Public Radio, local governments like the towns of Monico and Sugar Camp as well as Langlade County expressed reservations about the project last fall, with the town of Monico wanting to preserve some of the land along U.S. Highways 8 and 45 for residential and commercial development.
Felzkowski, whose district contains the Pelican River Forest, was concerned the project would reduce tax revenues for the local governments near the forest.
"We have areas that are going broke, and we continue to take the tools away from them to allow them to be economically viable," Felzkowski said last Tuesday. "Enough is enough."
Felzkowski said Republicans would introduce legislation to ensure stewardship proposals don’t move forward until affected areas are “100% on-board,” according to WPR.
Democrats criticized the GOP’s use of anonymous objections, with Evers blasting Republicans for using a “secret process” to block projects, saying his administration was considering next steps.
‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ conservation opportunity
Described as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” the Pelican River Forest Project protects nearly 70,000 acres of working forestland in northern Wisconsin, including 68 miles of streams from the Wolf and Wisconsin rivers. Proponents said the project would protect the quality of the rivers and safeguard drinking water for over 40,000 people downstream.
Additionally, the project permanently secures public access to more than 70 miles of recreational roads, with maintenance funded by a private endowment, according to advocates. The roads, which have been closed in recent years, provide access throughout the forest for fishing, hunting and sightseeing.
According to the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental preservation and economic development that bought the Pelican River Forest in 2021, the area plays a crucial role in Wisconsin’s timber industry and the fight against climate change. The forest stores enough carbon dioxide to offset emissions from 4.1 million passenger vehicles over the course of a year and filters 60 billion gallons of precipitation per year, the fund said.
Clint Miller, central Midwest regional director for the Conservation Fund, said the group was disappointed by the JFC’s actions but would continue working to finish the project.
“The Pelican River Forest project is a historic opportunity to advance the public benefits of retaining forests for the critical forest products industry and provide new opportunities for recreation,” Miller told WXPR last week. “We are grateful for the overwhelming local public support and will continue working with the Department of Natural Resources to complete this important project.”
The Department of Natural Resources now has to come up with other funds recouping the federal grant to keep the project alive. The DNR previously told WPR it might need to seek a landowner donation or launch a fundraising campaign if stewardship funds came up short.
If the project is not approved by the end of the fiscal year, the $11 million in federal Forest Legacy grant funding — which covers more than two-thirds of the Pelican River Forest project cost — will be unavailable, according to DNR Deputy Secretary Steven Little.
Joe Hovel, the Director of Partners in Forestry, a group that pushes for sustainable forestry in northern Wisconsin, previously told The Daily Cardinal that the lifeblood of the Northwood economy was forestry and tourism.
Hovel worried that lifeblood could run dry without support for the Pelican River Forest.
“If this opposition succeeds in opposing and killing this project, that federal money, it’s going to go for forestry and it’s going to go to help tourism and, unfortunately, it’s going to be in a different state,” Hovel warned. “It’s not going to be in Wisconsin.”
Gavin Escott is a photographer and staff writer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal, focusing on city and state news. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.