MADISON — The Legislature’s Budget Committee has voted to direct some $4 million to safeguard land in northern Wisconsin, allowing Gov. Tony Evers' Department of Natural Resources to obtain more than 14,000 acres in Iron County for public use.
The purchase would be among the largest land buys under the state's Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. It's one of two acquisitions the Joint Finance Committee voted to advance Tuesday.
But the approved $4.3 million for the Iron County acquisition, a figure based on the lowest estimated value of the property, is $500,000 less than the $4.8 million previously OK'd for the purchase.
With the plan still needing approval from landowners, some worry the deal could be in jeopardy following the committee's actions.
The vote came after a committee member objected to the agency’s request to purchase the land from the Keweenaw Land Association, a timber investment management organization, for the Forest Legacy Program in Iron County and allocate $347,000 to get almost 200 acres for the Marathon County Forest.
The action sent it to the full Joint Finance Committee, which decided to approve both on Tuesday. Five members were absent in the body’s first meeting since the biennial state budget passed earlier this summer.
For the Iron County land, the parcel would be acquired under the easement process, a perpetual agreement between the DNR and landowner whereby the state obtains certain rights from the owner. Under the deal, Keweenaw would manage the properties, pay taxes and assessments on it and obtain revenues from timber harvests, while public access would be retained and no developments or buildings would be constructed on the property.
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Wisconsin Wildlife Federation executive director George Meyer said he's concerned the agreement ultimately may not be approved, given the funding cut.
"I hope they agree to it but they're going to make their own business decision based on economics to the company," the former DNR secretary said.
He also highlighted the benefits of the agreement for hunting, fishing, biking and other outdoor recreational activities, in addition to the area's boost to the timber industry.
A spokesperson for Keweenaw didn't immediately return a request for comment. A DNR spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the committee's decision on the proposal, but added officials will move forward with the Marathon County purchase.
Getting approval from the landowner is the last big hurdle in the process, Meyer said, which concludes with paperwork being finalized between the state and the seller.
Since 1991, just nine land acquisitions under the program exceeded 10,000 acres, according to the latest Legislative Fiscal Bureau informational paper on the program. As of last June, nearly 670,000 acres of land were bought through the program.
The land stewardship program has faced scrutiny in recent years. The Legislature in its budget, which Evers approved last month, opted to extend the program for two more years and reauthorize bonding for it at $33.25 million annually, though it’s typically been funded on a 10-year cycle. The framework first began in 1989.