Easement keeps 45,000 acres open to public in Wisconsin

Madison — The Natural Resources Board approved the second largest land conservation transaction in Wisconsin’s history when it approved the purchase of a Forest Legacy easement on 44,679 acres in northwestern Wisconsin for $11,260,000.

This purchase from the Lyme St. Croix Forest Company is phase one of what’s to be a two-phase effort. The DNR hopes to secure federal cost-sharing in 2014 to buy another 22,667-acre easement for about $6 million, which would then make the combined transaction the largest in state history.

The total project would cover 67,347 acres at $17.3 million.

The board approved the first easement at its May 23 meeting after hearing glowing recommendations from the DNR and public.

The land is located in scattered parcels in Douglas, Burnett, Washburn and Bayfield counties in the headwaters of the Brule and St. Croix rivers. From northeast to southwest, the properties cover more than 30 miles.

The importance of the purchase was highlighted by Paul DeLong, DNR state forester, who described how industrial forest land has always been important to sportsmen for hunting, fishing, trapping, and other activities.

But then companies began selling off those lands, eliminating public access on the sold acreage.

“Twenty years ago we had 1.1 million acres of industrial forest land … that was in the state tax program and open for recreation,” DeLong said. “Beginning in the mid-1990s there was a divestiture of lands and we saw over 95 percent of our industrial forest land base change hands at least once, and sometimes twice. Land that had been open for public use for generations was coming out and then closed to public recreation.”

Once the land is carved up and sold it is often no longer open to the public, and sometimes the new landowners don’t practice forest management.

DeLong said the previous 1.1-million acres of industrial forest land is now down to 700,000 acres in the state. This land is critical to Wisconsin’s forest products industry, making the state number one in employment for forest products, and important for recreation and tourism.

The purchase received strong backing from five individuals. George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said that the purchase will be a huge benefit for all citizens. “Long-term protection of forest blocks in the state is critical to maintain our very important forest products industry and the many secondary businesses and employment that are based on it,” Meyer said.

Matt Dallman, of The Nature Conservancy, said the area contains globally significant jack pine, and the land will now be kept in active timber management.

Mike Carlson, of Gathering Waters Conservancy, said the easement will prevent the land from being fragmented and, thus, provide habitat for several threatened and endangered species.

Ed Steigerwaldt, consulting forester for Lyme St. Croix Forest Company, said the land will always be open to the public and by being managed as a working forest, the land will provide many jobs in the forest industry.

Rob Bohman, Conservation Congress chair, said the Congress supports the purchase and the fact that it assures access for the public while protecting habitat.

A conservation easement ensures that: the land produces sustainable forest products; remains open to the public for recreation; and provides a host of environmental benefits from a well-managed forest.

This easement includes many class two trout streams, lakes and ponds, habitat for common and rare species, including sharp-tailed grouse and Kirtland warblers, and 47 miles of snowmobile trails. The land also buffers state and other public lands.

In buying an easement, the state spends half of what it would to buy the land outright. The public gets access rights, yet the land stays in private ownership, providing taxes on the land. The land can also be managed for timber.

The Lyme St. Croix Forest Company has more than 42 different Managed Forest Law (MFL) contracts for the land in this easement that expire between 2014 and 2059.

By being enrolled in MFL, the company receives lower taxes in exchange for managing the land for sustainable forestry. Had the state not bought the easement, Lyme could have kept it in MFL but still closed the land to public access or sold the land to private individuals, which may have then closed access to the land.

NRB member Terry Hilgenberg said he supported the purchase, but noted that “development is not a bad word,” and the state should consider that if it finds that some of the parcels don’t fit into its plans.

“This is not a non-development attack, but instead it is a pro-legacy program,” Hilgenberg said.

NRB member Greg Kazmierski asked about mineral rights. DeLong said that mineral rights vary with the individual parcels, but on those where Lyme owns the rights, they could not mine for minerals without DNR approval.

Dick Steffes, DNR real estate director, said that the DNR had been interested in the land when it was owned by Wausau Papers in 1999 because the land contains globally significant pine barrens, but no deal was reached.

The land was then sold to Lyme, which implemented good forestry practices and approached the DNR about an easement.

“It includes a lot of trout streams, jack pine and sharptail habitat,” Steffes said.

The parcels include 27,200 acres of red pine, 8,000 acres of jack pine, and 9,479 acres of hardwood. The land will be open for all outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and skiing.

The easement includes: frontage on MacKay Creek and most of Five Mile Creek in Washburn County; access to one mile of Bergen Creek and two miles of Upper Ox Creek in Douglas County; and access to 20-acre

Cheney Lake and many other small lakes.

Funding for phase one comes from the Knowles/Nelson stewardship Program.

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