Wisconsin panel OKs preserving 14,000 acres of forest land

MADISON — More than 14,000 acres of forest land in northern Wisconsin would be preserved for public access and protected from development under a $4.3 million purchase approved Tuesday by the Legislature's budget committee.

But the committee lowered the amount of money available for the purchase by $500,000 from what the Natural Resources Board approved, a move that one of the chief proponents of the deal said could jeopardize the sale.

The purchase of the conservation easement in northern Wisconsin's Iron County would be one of the largest land transactions of its kind in the 30-year history of the state's stewardship program. It has won praise from conservation groups, which support protecting the land from development while making it publicly accessible.

The Natural Resources Board earlier this year approved spending nearly $5 million from the state's Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program to purchase the easement from Keweenaw Land Association Ltd. of Ironwood, Michigan.

Conservation easements are used to protect large sections of forest, including fish and wildlife habitats, while also ensuring public access for hunting, fishing, hiking and other activities.

The budget committee lowered the allowable amount to be spent on the project to $4.3 million to reflect a lower estimate of the property's value. That could jeopardize the deal, said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

"This is a major piece of property," Meyer said after the committee vote. "It would be a major loss to sportsmen" if the deal fell apart, Meyer said.

The deal must be approved by the Keweenaw Land Association. Mark Sherman, the group's president, declined to comment.

The Keweenaw Land Association owns 185,000 acres of forest land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in northern Wisconsin. It contracts with local logging and construction companies and serves saw and paper mills in Wisconsin.

Jim Lemke, chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources real estate operations, said after the vote that he's always concerned about any deal until it's finalized.

"We're just hopeful we can bring the parties together," he said.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously, with no debate, to approve the project, known as the Great Northern Conservation Easement.

The pending deal includes land in the towns of Knight, Carey and Mercer as well as Iron County. It is near both the existing Twin Lakes forest legacy easement and the Moose Lake State Natural Area. Combined, about 32,000 acres of contiguous land would be available for public use.

The majority of the new 14,352 acres, about 90%, contains productive forest, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The remainder includes wetlands and about 17 miles of stream and lake frontage, including more than 3 miles of classified trout streams.

There are also 16 miles of existing privately owned roads within the property, which are accessible off of highways 51 and 77.

Under the deal, the land would continue to be logged by its private owners but it could not be subdivided and no developments or buildings would be constructed. Agricultural uses, mining, quarrying and mineral exploration would be prohibited. Public uses, including fishing, hunting, trapping, hiking and skiing would be allowed.