State purchase in works

Correspondent

Green Bay, Wis. Quiet talks between the Department of Natural
Resources (DNR) and Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) could climax in
the state buying some or all of the 9,500 acres of near-pristine
wilderness WPS owns along the Peshtigo River in Marinette
County.

At least that’s what one could gather from recent comments made
by the utility company’s director of environmental services, Ed
Newman. Speaking to a group of 15 people invited to a roundtable
discussion April 3 near Crivitz, Newman said the DNR is very
interested in the thousands of acres of forested lands the company
wants reclassified so it can remove them from its hydroelectric
plant licenses.

“They’re looking at acquiring a fair amount if not all of this
property,” Newman said.

DNR Northeast Region director Ron Kazmierczak, of Green Bay,
said he could not comment on the confidential negotiations.

Kazmierczak did confirm that both the DNR and U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service (FWS) have sent letters to the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC) stating they are opposed to the
proposed withdrawal.

WPS chief executive officer Larry Weyers initially had some in
the group concerned when he said he wasn’t sure if the utility
would be the most secure stewards of the lands in the future.
Elaborating later, he said if WPS ownership should change in any
way, there’s no guarantee the new owners would offer the same
stewardship.

WPS has allowed public access to its lands since acquiring them
nearly 70 years ago, even though they weren’t required to keep the
lands open as part of federal licensing until the 1960s.

As a license-holder, WPS first had to contact the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission with its plans. It did earlier this year and
was advised to consult with the DNR and FWS, both of which have
expressed written opposition. WPS wouldn’t even have to meet with
the DNR or the public, Newman said, but chose to in an effort to
try to manage any changes the best way possible.

WPS’ proposal calls for the utility to keep land immediately
adjacent to its dams, including boat launches and 75 feet of
frontage on the waters near the facilities to ensure public access
to reservoirs.

Preventing developers from buying up the land was paramount to
most of those gathered at a supper club west of Crivitz on April 3.
Only one of the 15 favored extensive development. Two said they’d
want most of the land left as it is, though they could envision
small tracts being sold on the fringes for individuals or
businesses.

Michael Van De Kamp, of Green Bay, called the WPS property a
crown jewel of northeastern Wisconsin.

“To have that much land in such a wild state is unique,” Van De
Kamp said. “I come up here to relax; to fish, camp, hike,
snowmobile, hunt, cross country ski all of that.”

Van De Kamp, whose family owns 40 acres of land west of Crivitz,
wasn’t alone. Resort owner Leon Popp said Marinette County’s trails
are visited by thousands of snowmobilers each year.

“The system would be destroyed if the WPS land could not be
used,” Popp said.

Don Clewley, of Marinette, said studies show tourism is worth at
least $72 million annually to the county.

“It’s because of the scenery here,” Clewley said. “God only made
so many acres like High Falls and Caldron Falls (flowages). Once we
dispose of that, it’s lost forever.”

Keith Thoreson, president of the Crivitz Recreation Association,
said preserving the wild lands for tourism is preferable to selling
it to the highest bidder.

But Bob Fraik, of Marinette, said if properly zoned and
regulated, the land would be ideal for vacation and retirement
homes. Retired home builder Don Gould, of Crivitz, said he’d like
to see Marinette County become involved, selling some small tracts
on the edges of the property for development while retaining most
of it for timber sales and public access.

Mark Huemphner, of Wausaukee, a private logger and forester,
said fragmentation of woodlands leads to attempts to micro-manage
property.

“That’s not the best thing for the land,” Huemphner said. “It
would be in better hands if the county or state owned it and kept
it whole.”

Kazmierczak said when the DNR buys land, it pays taxes based on
the purchase price. That works out even better for municipalities
than if it were sold at fair market value.

Michael Staggs, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Fisheries
Management and Habitat Protection, said the WPS case is not
unprecedented. Via e-mail, Staggs said, “This is exactly what
happened on a number of other FERC reservoirs. In a couple of
cases, the DNR ended up buying a lot of the land (e.g. Willow,
Flambeau and Chippewa flowages). In some other cases the land was
sold and developed (e.g. Lake Nokomis, DuBay).”

Van De Kamp said he felt much better just hearing how WPS is
pursuing the process with the DNR, but he wants to make sure the
land stays wild. “Some people are going to benefit from this
change,” Van De Kamp said. “I just don’t want it to be the wrong
people.”

If things go well, Newman said the company could have the land
reclassified by the end of the year. WPS plans to look at
reclassifying its other projects on the Wisconsin and Menominee
rivers at a later date, he said.

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