By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Department of Natural Resources’ board approved putting about 3,180 acres up for sale Wednesday, bringing the agency into compliance with a legislative mandate to sell 10,000 acres by next summer that sparked pushback from conservationists and hunters.
Republican lawmakers concerned with the rising costs of the DNR’s land stewardship program included provisions in the 2013-15 state budget that directed the agency to sell the acreage by mid-2017 and use the money to pay down stewardship debt. Republicans have long criticized the program, saying it removes land from tax rolls and closes off too much acreage to hunting.
Larry Bonde, chairman of the Conservation Congress, a group of sportsmen that advises the DNR on policy, told the board that the mandate hurts outdoor recreation but acknowledged there was little his group or the board could do.
“Unfortunately, you have to do it,” Bonde said. “The reality is our hands are tied and we need to move forward.”
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, stressed that the land sales amounted to only a sliver of DNR land. The agency currently owns 1.5 million acres statewide and has easements on another 300,267 acres.
The DNR’s board has put about 7,000 acres on the block since 2014 to comply with the budget mandate. Thus far, the agency has closed or has pending contracts to sell 900 acres for $1.1 million, DNR Facilities and Lands Director Terry Bay told the board.
The last phase of the DNR’s compliance plan called for offering a final 3,560 acres to local governments, adjacent landowners and the public through an online auction. But the board unanimously agreed to scale back that total acreage to about 3,180 on Wednesday after pulling several parcels off the list.
Six of those parcels totaled about 373 acres in northern and southeastern Wisconsin that the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation said were prime areas for hunters and anglers. Another 85 acres in Waukesha County were spared after dairy farmer John Koepke, whose property abuts the land, told the board he worried that a potential buyer could build mansions on the land and use his property as a driveway.
The board has now put up about 10,225 acres, more than enough to meet the budget mandate.
Board Chairman Terry Hilgenberg praised DNR staff for diligently working to identify expendable parcels, calling it a “horrendous” project.
Board member Fred Prehn said he worried that the sales may prompt people not to donate land to the state in the future. Wisconsin Wildlife Federation Executive Director George Meyer submitted a letter to the board ahead of Wednesday’s vote saying the group didn’t oppose the 10,000-acre sale because most of the parcels weren’t useable for conservation or recreation. The letter promised, however, that the federation would oppose any future legislative attempts to sell more acreage.