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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Pelican River Forest controversy draws attention to future of conservation in Wisconsin

Bethany Olmstead isDirector of Conservation, Working Forest Fund® with The Conservation Fund
Susan Bence
Bethany Olmstead is the director of Conservation, Working Forest Fund with The Conservation Fund.

The proposed 70,000-acre land conservation project in northern Wisconsin called the Pelican River Forestoutside Rhinelander has been hanging in limbo for months.

Earlier this week, a powerful state legislative committee voted — along party lines — to reject a $4 million stewardship grant that would have brought the project to life.

Bethany Olmstead works with The Conservation Fund, the group leading the conservation project.

Snow still blanketed the ground, so that meant strapping on snowshoes to get a glimpse of even a smidge of the 70,000 acres with Olmstead.

“It’s comprised of a couple of large blocks of forestland. The largest though is here off of Pelican Lake,” Olmstead says.

She says the location is strategic— especially for wildlife. To the northeast of the property, “You connect with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, [and to the southwest] adjoins county forests in Langlade and Oneida as well as a little bit Forest County land. That connection, that ability for wildlife and the critters to be able to move from one area to the next,” Olmstead says.

The ability for wildlife to migrate will be increasingly important as our climate continues to change.

“In addition there are about 27,000 acres of wetland scattered across the property and those provide great wildlife and waterfowl habitat and other aquatic species, but it also serves to help filter water and really maintain good solid water quality in the headwaters of those two major river systems,” Olmstead says.

"The 68 miles of streams, 27,000 acres of forested wetlands and dozens of ponds within Pelican River Forest support good water quality in both the upper Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds." - The Conservation Fund
Susan Bence
"The 68 miles of streams, 27,000 acres of forested wetlands and dozens of ponds within Pelican River Forest support good water quality in both the upper Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds," The Conservation Fund says.
The Conservation Fund

She says the project won’t just benefit wildlife, but human life too.

“There are 68 miles of stream on the property that feed into the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers, that then provides drinking water supplies for folks downstream,” Olmstead explains.

Then there’s human recreation, “Hiking or hunting, or fishing, or cross country skiing or snowmobile trails, another key economic drivers in this region,” Olmstead says.

The forest products industry is an economic driver too.
Olmstead says the forest is managed sustainably, “We are not over-harvesting. You can manage for the long term and for the long term sustainability of the forest.”

Sustainable forest management is a facet of The Conservation Fund's plan.
Susan Bence
Sustainable forest management is a facet of The Conservation Fund's plan.

If someone purchases the forest in the future, the new owner would have to follow the same practice. Forestry and wildlife agencies liked what they saw, and awarded grants to help fund the Pelican River Forest.

"Seventy-five percent of the funding will come from the U.S. Forest Service forest legacy program, and then we also have an additional $600,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; and then the remaining approximately around $4 million we have requested the remaining approximately around $4 million, we have requested from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program," Olmstead says.

That’s where the story unravels, and Charles Carlin picks up the story.

Charles Carlin (center) with Gathering Waters
Gathering Waters
Charles Carlin (center) with Gathering Waters

He’s director of strategic initiatives with Gathering Waters, an alliance of Wisconsin land trusts.

“So the DNR has thoroughly vetted the project, awards Knowles Nelson Stewardship funds. They present it to the Natural Resources Board,” Carlin says.

The Natural Resources Board gave Pelican River unanimously the green light.

“Then the very last step for a project of this size it goes to the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. This is a very powerful budget-writing and appropriations committee in the legislature,” Carlin says.

So powerful, that even one anonymous voice of concern within the committee can stall a stewardship grant.

That’s what happened in the Pelican River Forest case in November 2022, which Carlin says is the committee’s prerogative, but it comes with a caveat.

“If a member of the finance committee wants to object to a project within that 14-day review period, they have to notify the DNR that a meeting has been scheduled to discuss the grant — that’s the exact wording of state law,” Carlin says.

That didn’t happen, in fact nothing happened until the committee’s 12-4 vote this week to deny the grant, leaving The Conservation Fund to figure out its next step.

Carlin says Pelican River Forest isn’t the only project the Joint Finance Committee has rejected. According to a recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report, Knowles-Nelson Stewardship allocations are down 88% since 2007.

“Since 2014, more than 40 grants have been held up by this JFC review process. Very few of those grants ever receive a public hearing or a vote,” Carlin says.

Conservation groups are calling for a thorough review of the stewardship program and Carlin says the Joint Finance Committee’s role must be retooled. “We need to make sure anonymous objections become a thing of the past. And that when an objection is raised, there’s a clear timeline for holding public hearings and on holding votes,” Carlin says.

Fred Clark with Wisconsin's Green Fire
Wisconsin's Green Fire
Fred Clark with Wisconsin's Green Fire

Fred Clark with Wisconsin's Green Fire, an advocacy group that espouses science-based practices and environmental protection, agrees and thinks there can't be too many people at the table.

“Regardless of your politics I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t have a stake in a resilient climate future and in livable communities. I think everybody has a place in that conversation,” Clark says.

In the meantime, on the Pelican River Forest front The Conservation Fund stated, “We will continue working with the Department of Natural Resources to complete this important project.”

Reporter's Note: While gathering people's perspectives on the state and future of biodiversity in northern, southern and western Wisconsin for our earth week series, I heard urgency coupled with the determination to contribute to solutions.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.