Elk Creek trout stream one example of state-owned parcel that should not be considered for sale by NRB on Feb. 24

Editor’s note: The Natural Resources Board is scheduled to consider action on the possible sale of some state lands when the board meets on Wednesday, Feb. 24 in Madison. The meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m. in the lower level of the DNR’s GEF2 headquarters building (room G09). The NRB will consider the sale of approximately 5,900 acres of public land at this meeting. In the guest editorial below, veteran journalist Joe Knight, of Eau Claire, takes a closer look at one small parcel proposed for sale on the border of Dunn and Eau Claire counties while also offering an overview of the proposed land sales. 

In 1959 the Department of Natural Resources bought 9.6 acres at the border of Dunn and Eau Claire counties from  the state Highway Commission for $101.   A little bit of the land from this parcel is north of  Interstate 94 and extends just to Highway 12.  Most of the acreage is south of I-94.

The highway commission had decided the land was not needed for highway purposes.  But someone at the DNR must have noticed that Elk Creek, one of the better trout streams in the Eau Claire area,  runs  through the middle of much of this parcel.   

Keeping ownership of the parcel in state hands provided protection for the stream banks and public access.

Now the land is likely to be put up for sale, and the auction will only be open to adjoining landowners.

The DNR is recommending that the state keep a fishing easement along both banks so trout anglers could walk the banks and the DNR or some conservation organization could work on the banks.  

There would be some sort of minimum bid for the land, but given the small number of bidders and the value of the easement the DNR is seeking, this will not be a big money maker for the state.

But this process of state land sales is being driven by ideology, not economics or conservation stewardship. 

Through the 2013-15 state budget the Legislature directed the DNR to sell 10,000 acres of land by June 30, 2017, and left it to DNR to work out the rule for identifying where these “unneeded" lands were.

The Legislature did require that the lands be outside of project DNR boundaries – areas where the DNR is trying to buy additional land, such as state wildlife areas or fishery areas.

The Elk Creek parcel is one of 82 parcels, totaling 5,900 acres, being considered for sale in the second phase of land sales.  They go to the Natural Resources Board for review Wednesday, Feb. 24.  

There are three categories of lands for sale:  

  • 23 parcels totaling 2,405 acres that will be offered only to counties and other municipalities or Indian tribes.  A parcel that includes wild shoreline on Bob Lake in Chippewa County is in this category.  It has adjacent Chippewa County Forest land.
  • 35 parcels, totaling 2,486 acres,  that have no public access and will be offered only to adjoining landowners.  The Elk Creek parcel is in this category.
  • 24 parcels totaling 1,009 acres to be offered through a private bidding process.  This category includes 27.2 acres on an unnamed tributary to Elk Creek in Dunn County. It’s a long, narrow parcel that includes 5,296 feet of two-bank frontage on the little creek which has wild brook and brown trout. The land is mostly wetlands. It was purchased in 1974 for $5,500 for the purpose of protecting this cold water tributary to Elk Creek. A trout stream is only as good as the cold springs that feed it.  Because Highway H borders this parcel it falls into the category that is open for public bidding.   

The criteria the DNR is using include choosing parcels where access is difficult or unavailable to the public or for the DNR to do management; also parcels that have limited recreational value or natural resources value. 

But they are doing this backwards. 

There are undoubtedly some state lands that no longer serve the purpose for which they were acquired and should be sold, but the study to identify these parcels should have come first,  rather than concocting  criteria to meet a number of acres the Legislature has set arbitrarily and  slipped  into the budget bill. 

There is a conservative ideology at work here that believes that public land will invariably be mismanaged while private land will invariably be well managed by enlightened self interest. 

In the real world it doesn’t always work out that way. Most of our public forests in Wisconsin were derived from private land that was once smoldering  stump fields or abandoned farms.  

Most of those isolated parcels were probably purchased at the suggestion of some public servant who was taking a long range view of conservation. 

Income  from these land sales goes to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which is used, in part, to purchase new lands for conservation and outdoor recreation.  But it makes no sense to sell off conservation land bought at  1950s prices to buy conservation land at 2016 prices. 

I have fished on Elk Creek where it runs through the 9.6-acre parcel  in question, although I didn’t realize it was state land at the time.

One time I fished all the way up to the I-94, but usually when the traffic started getting loud I turned around. 

There were some old trout habitat structures there that weren’t providing much habitat anymore. I always wondered who built them. Maybe they dated back to the old Civilian Conservation Corps days, but they were probably more recent.

I never met another angler there, but I saw boot prints on the sand and I’ve talked to other anglers who fished there.  

The parcel is considered “land locked” by the DNR, but I don’t consider a parcel with a navigable stream that is used by fishermen to be without public access.        

I had a friend who lived downstream, who owned a farm bordering the stream.  He had a developer stop by one day who offered to buy the land along the creek so it could be subdivided for lots.  My friend sadly has passed, but the farm remains intact and in the family.    

But I wonder if the state land upstream is sold, what would keep it from being developed some day, even if the property had a fishing easement along the stream corridor.  The DNR is not asking for a development easement as part of the deal.

Also, providing “natural resource” value is one of the criteria for deciding whether state land is to be sold. Isn’t wooded land bordering a good trout stream providing “resource values”  just by protecting the stream banks?

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