Spring pond controversy erupts in Wisconsin

Madison — When it comes to spring ponds and any other sensitive water resources on DNR lands being reviewed for possible sale, there are only two possible dispositions: Those parcels will either be sold to counties for inclusion in the respective county forest system, or the parcel will be retained by the DNR.

That message slowly made its way into the state’s mainstream media last week following an initial report that sensitive water resources – with the spotlight now focused primarily on spring ponds in Langlade County – could end up in private hands, or end up as a source for water-bottling companies.

Doug Haag, DNR real estate director, found himself embroiled in a brouhaha last week as trout fishermen and other concerned citizens started hammering on his desk when word surfaced that Langlade County spring pond parcels could end up going to the highest bidder.

Haag said that simply isn’t so.

“If we make an offer to the counties and the counties don’t buy, then the department will retain those parcels,” Haag said.

While most of the attention has been focused on Langlade County spring ponds, there are 36 parcels and 2,575 acres being reviewed by DNR field staff for possible sale to 14 counties.

For that acreage, Haag said DNR field staff can only make one of two recommendations.

“The only consideration here is a sale to a county. Our field staff will either recommend that we retain the parcel, or sell it to a county,” he said. “If it is sold to a county, there will be deed restrictions to maintain public access for nature-based recreation.” 

He said the DNR also would retain rights to manage the fisheries and perhaps timber resources in some sensitive areas of the parcel.

Haag added that any spring ponds would not end up as sources for water-bottling companies. Nor does he believe the Legislature will force the DNR to sell those lands to private landowners if any parcels are recommended for retention by the DNR.

“I don’t see anyone looking over our shoulder here,” he said.

Why are the parcels potentially being offered to 14 counties?

Jane Severt can help Haag answer that question. Severt, a forester, is the executive director of the Wisconsin County Forest Association. Of the state’s 72 counties, 29 have their own county forest system. Together, the holdings of those 29 counties cover more land base than the Chequamegon and Nicolet national forests – at 2.4 million acres, almost double that of the national forests.

In the case of the 2,575 acres, Haag found that those parcels were within, or adjacent to, county forests in the 14 counties. He said that since the counties are already managing that land in a fashion similar to how the DNR manages its land, it makes sense to offer those parcels to the counties, but only if two things come to pass first: DNR field staff make a recommendation to sell, and the Natural Resources Board authorizes the DNR to make those offers.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Severt said after reviewing the fact that the Legislature has ordered the DNR to sell up to 10,000 acres that are not within project boundaries.

She said that if the DNR is being forced to sell some of this land, selling it to counties within the WCFA will result in almost seamless management – if board members in those 14 counties agree to buy any offerings.

“The counties would make their decision individually,” Severt said. “Some counties have become very active in purchasing land since they became eligible for up to 50 percent Stewardship funding. But, it’s up to the county boards. I think the majority will likely be interested. Langlade County has been interested in the past; the county just bought blocks of Plum Creek land.”

The Langlade County spring ponds have attracted attention because the 13 parcels in that county cover about 1,000 acres and contain the small trout ponds. All parcels being reviewed are listed on the DNR website. Langlade County’s parcels are part of the 36 properties and 2,575 acres being reviewed by DNR field staff for possible sale to the 14 WCFA counties.

However, overall, the DNR is reviewing 118 parcels, covering about 8,300 acres that could be sold to private parties or other units of government.

All of these properties are part of the second phase of a DNR effort to reach the 10,000-acre mark set by the Legislature. That acreage is to be sold by June 30, 2017.

“The NRB approved the sale of 1,405 acres in the first phase. We are working on marketing that acreage now,” Haag said.

“We are hoping to get enough parcels reviewed by field staff (by Oct. 1) to bring 8,600 acres to the NRB in December or January to put up for sale,” he said. “We have to come up with 8,600 acres to be approved by the NRB – that will put us in compliance with law. The law doesn’t require us to sell the land, just to make it available.”

Haag will have an opportunity to get this information to county board members at a Sept. 25 meeting when the WCFA holds its annual meeting, this year at the Hartwood Conference Center in Trego. Haag and Severt are already getting the information to county foresters in the 14 counties, but Severt sees the Sept. 25 meeting as an opportunity for Haag to answer questions.

“There are usually quite a few county supervisors in attendance at this meeting,” she said.

Haag pointed out that selling state land to counties is not unusual. Although a recent sale in Vernon County took place outside of the Legislature’s 10,000-acre edict, Vernon County recently added about 800 acres in two tracts that included county parks that were added to the county’s forest system.

“We first found those lands as part of the 2,700 acres found in phase one,” Haag said. “But we then found that those parcels were inside a project boundary, so that took it outside of the law that’s requiring us to sell land. We still sold that land to the county (the county did not have timber-management rights previously). But the proceeds from those sales will be used for future land purchases. Because those sales were not part of what we’re doing now, the proceeds are not required to be used to pay down Stewardship.”

Eric Rantala, as the Langlade County forester, has been in the spotlight lately because of the spring pond discussion in his county.

“We are very, very early in the process. The DNR field staff reviews are due at the end of September or early October. I’ve reviewed the properties to see how they would fit into the county forest. If they do make the list, I would take them to my forestry committee and go through proper channels to see if the county is interested.

“Some of them are surrounded completely by county forest, some are adjacent. Based on air photos, there would be timber value on some of the parcels,” Rantala said.

The Langlade County Forest now covers 130,003 acres. 

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