Nefarious, even by Republican standards: Development designs on the Pelican River Forest

Gaylord Nelson is turning over in his grave. The former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, widely known as the founder of Earth Day, was a Democrat, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he would be appalled by our state’s current crop of Republican legislators. But three-term Republican governor Warren Knowles would be equally shocked by the underhanded tactics members of his party have deployed against the state-funded conservation program that bears the names of both Wisconsin luminaries, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

The principle culprits in the right-wing attack on Knowles-Nelson is the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, a 16-member panel consisting, in our heavily gerrymandered state, of 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Since its founding in 1989, Knowles-Nelson has invested $1.3 billion to protect our lakes and stream, conserve working forests, secure critical wildlife habitats, and provide countless opportunities for outdoor recreation across Wisconsin, according to

The stewardship program is funded by the state budget through 2026, but in the past few years, the money in its coffers are too often going unspent. Because this is a program with overwhelming state-wide support (9 out of 10 Wisconsinites favor the stewardship program), Republicans in the legislature can’t afford to take a public stand against it. Instead, through a process known as “passive review,” twelve projects to preserve valuable Wisconsin natural resources have been blocked by the JFC.

The passive review process enables any member of the JFC to raise an anonymous objection to a project for an unspecified time period, effectively blocking funding. Sometimes, as in the case of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs in Ozaukee County, there is a developer in the wings. In that case, one who wanted the gorgeous site on the Lake Michigan shore to build McMansions. The project, which will extend the Lion’s Den Gorge nature preserve, has been vetted by the DNR and continues to receive widespread community support. Governor Evers saved the preservation effort by finding funding elsewhere when the use of Knowles-Nelson funds was blocked by the JCF.

But in the case of the Pelican River Forest, the latest preservation effort to be stopped in its tracks by an anonymous objector from the JCF, it appears that Republicans are simply opposed to the concept of natural resource preservation. Preservation, by its very nature, means “in perpetuity.” As State Senator Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, quipped, “Forever is a long time.” Felzkowski told Wisconsin Public Radio, “What’s happening here is when we do a conservation easement . . . what that’s basically saying is this land can never ever be developed.”

The 70,000 acre Pelican River Forest, currently owned by the Conservation Fund, a national non-profit, is a very special place. Among its natural wonders are 68 miles of streams and 27,000 acres of forested wetlands, “straddling the divide between the Lake Superior and Mississippi River basins.” It links the Oneida County Forest and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The preservation effort funded by Knowles-Nelson would create conservation easements on approximately 56,000 acres, preserving the land for recreation and sustainable forestry. As privately owned land, it is already part of the state’s tax base, though Felzkowski has complained that if it were developed – perhaps into a Wisconsin Dells-style water park and multiple golf courses – it would add many more dollars to the state tax rolls.

But if Felzkowski’s greed-based, short-term thinking were applied to Wisconsin’s beloved northern forests, the character and quality of life in our state would change radically. While state Republicans favor large businesses and developments worth millions, the small business owners, hikers, skiers, and fishing enthusiasts that thrive Up North are rightfully opposed to this plan to open our North Woods to development.

It is well past time for the members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to come out of the shadows and submit to the scrutiny – and the will – of the people of Wisconsin.


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