By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Department of Natural Resources’ board has approved spending nearly $2 million to complete a new recreational forest in northwestern Wisconsin, despite Republican lawmakers’ misgivings about the stewardship program.
The board voted Wednesday to borrow $1.9 million through the stewardship program to acquire an easement on about 21,000 acres from the Lyme St. Croix Forest Co. The board approved buying an easement on more than 44,000 acres from the company for $11.3 million in stewardship dollars in 2012. Together the two easements will form the new 65,867-acre Brule-St. Croix Legacy Forest. DNR officials said the purchase is the largest land easement acquisition in state history.
The forest will span portions of Douglas, Bayfield, Burnett and Washburn counties and feature 80 small lakes and ponds and 14 miles of streams and pine barrens habitat. The land will remain in private ownership and timber harvests will continue.
“It’s a win-win for everybody that will help maintain the celebrated forested character of the north,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said.
The stewardship program authorizes the DNR to borrow money for land purchases, boat landing repair, developing DNR property and grants to conservancy organizations and local governments for land acquisition. Republicans have long criticized the program, arguing it removes land from the tax rolls, closes off too much land to hunting and fishing and runs up massive debt. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated the DNR has spent $87 million paying off stewardship debt in fiscal year 2013-14 alone.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed in his 2015-17 state budget to prohibit the DNR from buying any more land through its stewardship program until at least 2028. The program is set to expire in mid-2020; even if legislators renew it then the DNR still wouldn’t be able to buy any land for another eight years.
Stepp, a Walker appointee, emphasized in her statement that the new forest will be in private hands and on the tax rolls. Walker’s spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, referred a request for comment on the new borrowing to the DNR. An agency spokesman didn’t immediately return an email.
Republican state Reps. Joe Sanfelippo and David Craig have proposed a bill that would allow local government officials to veto stewardship acquisition deals. Their aides didn’t immediately return emails seeking comment.