DNR signs Wisconsin's largest land conservation dealThe Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday plans for the largest land conservation deal in state history — an agreement to purchase conservation easements on 67,346 acres of forest in Douglas, Bayfield, Burnett and Washburn counties.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday plans for the largest land conservation deal in state history — an agreement to purchase conservation easements on 67,346 acres of forest in Douglas, Bayfield, Burnett and Washburn counties.
The purchase from the New Hampshire-based Lyme Timber Co. is to be known as the Brule-St. Croix Legacy Forest. It is at the headwaters of the St. Croix and Bois Brule rivers and contains 80 small lakes and ponds, 14 miles of streams and globally unique pine barrens habitat. About 20,000 acres of the purchase are within the Brule River State Forest.
The deal will cost about $17.3 million.
“It’s really spectacular,” said Thomas Duffus, Upper Midwest director for the Conservation Fund, which had a hand in the transaction. “It’s a vast landscape of nearly unbroken forest for as far as the eye can see.”
The land will remain privately owned by Lyme Timber and on the tax rolls, but it will be forever undeveloped and open to public access, including hunting, fishing and hiking. The forest also will be open for sustainable forestry, including logging.
Keeping large tracts of undeveloped land is also considered critical to maintain habitat for many bird and wildlife species.
The move is an effort to stop the land from being divided and sold for recreational property such as cabins and second homes.
“This purchase forever opens access to hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, skiing, bird-watching, ATV and snowmobile trails, portions of the North Country Trail, and extensive habitat for deer, bear, wolves, woodcock, migratory songbirds and grouse,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said in a news release. “At the same time, the land remains in private ownership, on the tax rolls and will be managed sustainably for forestry purposes. It’s a win-win for everybody that will help maintain the celebrated forested character of the north.”
The transaction is to occur in two phases. In the first phase, the state Natural Resources Board on Wednesday will review the purchase of an easement of 44,679 acres for $11.3 million. If approved, the department will forward the proposal to lawmakers and to the governor for final approval. The money would come from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund for public land acquisitions.
The second phase, 22,668 acres for $6 million, is proposed for 2014. The DNR says it will use state stewardship funds, which come from bonding authority. It also will apply for federal money.
Minnesota has been buying similar forest easements on land in several northern counties.
Wisconsin also buys land with stewardship money, but in large-scale projects, easements have been the preferred options in recent years, said Richard Steffes, real estate director for the DNR. In a conservation easement, a payment to a property owner is made in exchange for an agreement to bar future development and ensure public access.
He said the DNR has been eyeing the land for potential purchase since 1999 and nearly struck a deal for an easement with the former owners in 2007.
The transaction with Lyme Timber comes in the wake of a huge change in forest ownership in the state. Much of the land once held by paper companies has been sold to investment companies, with paper companies using proceeds for other facets of their business.
From 1997 to 2002, more than 1 million acres of industrial forest were sold in Wisconsin, according to the DNR. Since then, hundreds of thousands of additional acres have changed hands.
“Maintaining large blocks of working forests is critical to the health of our industry,” Butch Johnson, owner of Johnson Timber in Hayward and Flambeau River Papers in Park Falls, said in a news release; his companies buy timber from land held by Lyme Timber. “We’ve seen the break-up of many of our former industrial forests in Wisconsin, and these conservation easements are invaluable public-private partnerships to meet the needs of the public and protect jobs.”
The property previously had been owned by Wausau Paper Corp., which sold 72,800 acres to Lyme Timber in December 2011 for $37 million, according to Wausau Paper’s financial statements.
After Lyme Timber bought the land, the Conservation Fund purchased an option for an easement until Wisconsin officials negotiated a deal with Lyme Timber.
“We bought time for the state,” Duffus said.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.