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DNR board delays decision on land sale to Walker donor (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Facing a cascade of criticism, the Department of Natural Resources’ board decided Wednesday to put off considering whether to sell a chunk of lakefront property to one of Gov. Scott Walker’s key donors.

The board was expected to decide whether to approve the sale during a meeting in Bowler. But board members instead voted unanimously to table the proposal until their February meeting, when they’re expected to review a broader plan that DNR officials are developing to sell off thousands of acres of state land.

“To pull this one out of the pipe strikes me as unusual,” board Chairman Preston Cole said. “We should do it in context.”

The DNR, which is controlled by the Walker administration, has proposed selling 1.75 acres along the Rest Lake shoreline in the town of Manitowish Waters to Elizabeth Uihlein for $275,000. Uihlein and her husband, Richard, donated nearly $3 million to Walker’s presidential super PAC, Unintimidated PAC, and Our American Revival, Walker’s now-defunct nonprofit group that helped promote his presidential bid.

She owns a condominium complex adjacent to the DNR property but the condos lack lake access. A DNR memo shows the land Uihlein wants was appraised in February at $384,000 and again in June at $238,000.

Critics have pounced on the proposal, calling it a sweetheart deal for one of Walker’s major backers.

State Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, sent a letter Tuesday to the DNR board questioning why the price is more than $100,000 lower than the higher appraisal and complaining that the DNR hasn’t given the public an adequate opportunity to weigh in on the matter.

“The entire process provides the appearance of special treatment for Mrs. Uihlein,” Wirch wrote.

Jim Zorn, executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees Chippewa tribes’ off-reservation treaty rights in northern Wisconsin’s ceded territory, emailed a letter to the board Tuesday objecting to the sale as well. Rest Lake lies in Vilas County, which is part of the ceded territory.

He maintained the sale would deprive wildlife enthusiasts of access to public resources and he believes the DNR hasn’t consulted with the tribes on the sale.

“This proposed transaction is unconscionable,” Zorn wrote.

The 2013-15 state budget requires the DNR to sell off 10,000 acres by mid-2017 to help pay down debt in its land stewardship program. Agency officials hope to present the plan to the board early next year. Cole said the Uihlein sale should be included in that plan to give the public a chance to review it and questioned why the proposal was before the board Wednesday.

Doug Haag, deputy director of the DNR’s land bureau, said the proposal came to the agency outside of the comprehensive plan process and is part of the agency’s ongoing reviews of its land portfolio.

Bill Broydrick, a lobbyist who acts as a spokesman for Uihlein, declined to comment. DNR spokesman Jim Dick also didn’t immediately respond to email messages.

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