Oneida County Board Wants More Information Beofre Making a Decision Regarding the Pelican River Forest Project

A resolution opposing the project is full of inaccuracies. An ad hoc committee will spend the next two months researching the project before returning to the full board with its recommendation.

The 70,000 acres of land that make up the Pelican River Forest span across three northern Wisconsin counties. Some county board members in one of those counties — Oneida County — are voicing opposition to the project, which would use Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program money to purchase easements to permanently protect the forest.

The Supervisor from the Town of Monico wants the Oneida County Board to oppose the use of state stewardship funds for the Pelican River Forest. Currently, funds are held up by the state’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) due to an objection raised by Republican State Senator Mary Felzkowski, a member of the JFC.

The proposed plan for the Pelican River Forest is that the land would be privately owned and protected through conservation easements, which would make the land available to the public for hunting, hiking, snowmobiling, and ATVing, and would allow for the continuation of sustainable timber harvesting.

According to WXPR, members of the public voiced their strong support of the Pelican River Forest in front of the Oneida County Board for over an hour at the most recent board meeting. They called for the board to reject the resolution against the project.

“The conservation of our water resources is fundamentally dependent on the protection of watersheds,” said Carl Fate during public comment.

“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.

During the meeting, 23 people commented, and all but one were in favor of protecting the forest and that one person neither opposed nor supported the project, but voiced concern about the lack of information available.

County Board Supervisor and Monico Town Chair Robert Briggs created the resolution, which calls on the board to object to the removal of future taxable land, which he argues will hurt the county’s economic growth potential.

There’s a problem though. The resolution has many inaccuracies and misleading statements, according to Gathering Water’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Charles Carlin.

Carlin pointed out that the easements would keep the land on the tax roll while making it accessible to the public. He also noted that the project wouldn’t add to the state’s debt burden 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 put together a summary of the false or misleading claims in the resolution, available here.

Board members were ultimately split on the resolution as presented. One often heard point of frustration is that the board had only had four days to look over the resolution before they were expected to vote on it. Some board members claimed they would support the resolution, even with the inaccuracies, in order to send a message to state lawmakers that they need more time to consider projects like this. Others said they could never support a resolution that wasn’t properly vetted.

Ultimately, the board voted to create a committee of up to five board members to research the project and potentially amend the resolution. The committee will return to the full county board at its May meeting with a recommendation.

To show your support of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and the Pelican River Forest, take action here.

Featured image by Dirk Dallas, 2017.

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