Evers secures federal grant for largest land conservation purchase in Wisconsin history

Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has secured federal dollars to complete the purchase of nearly 56,000 acres of property known as the Pelican River Forest, going around Republicans who had blocked it.

Associated Press

January 24, 2024 • Northern Region

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An aerial photo shows a body of water surrounded by deciduous and coniferous trees.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced Jan. 23, 2024, that the state has secured federal funding for a conservation easement known as the Pelican River Forest on land owned by the Conservation Fund, which plans to protect wildlife habitat and water quality. (Credit: Courtesy of Jay Brittain / The Conservation Fund)

AP News

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers announced Jan. 23 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 in 2023 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 Jan. 23 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.”

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