Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) confirmed objecting to the Pelican River Forest project in January. (Screenshot | WisEye)
The Joint Finance Committee (JFC) rejected $4 million in funds in a party-line vote on Tuesday for the Department of Natural Resource’s Pelican River Forest project, the largest land conservation effort in state history.
Republican lawmakers said during the hearing that the project was mismanaged by the DNR, while Democrats criticized the process for reviewing such projects saying it lacks transparency and that Republicans are essentially using a “pocket veto” to hold-up needed projects indefinitely.
The department requested approval in November 2022 for $4 million from the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship program to aid the total $15.5 million project, which would establish a 56,259 acre conservation easement along the Pelican River in Oneida, Forest and Langlade counties. Funding for the rest of the project was slated to come federal money, gifts and donations: the federal Forest Legacy Program grant planned to contribute almost $11 million — around 70% of the project cost — and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation donated $600,000 for the easement purchase.
An objection from a lawmaker was made on Nov. 21, 2022, holding up the project, which led to this week’s hearing.
Rep. Mark Born (R- Beaver Dam) said the Evers administration and Democrats just don’t like the oversight role of the committee and that the Pelican River Forest project is a “shining” example of why the JFC needs the authority to pause projects.
“The DNR should be embarrassed. They should be ashamed for what they did on this project,” Born said. “The new secretary, I hope, is making major changes. If I was in charge of that agency, people would be disciplined.” He added that the project was mismanaged, and the department “thought they could shove this down the throat of the locals, pretend like there were no concerns.”
Two towns located along the project passed resolutions opposing the project in October 2022, but the information wasn’t passed along to the Natural Resources Board before they voted to approve the project. DNR Secretary Adam Payne said there was a breakdown in the department’s communications.
Wisconsin’s stewardship fund is meant to help preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. The fund gives the DNR spending authority to purchase land and easement additions to state properties.
While the DNR has spending authority under the fund, certain projects, including those that cost more than $250,000 or those that include portions of land north of Highway 64, trigger a 14-day passive review process.
During the passive review process, the JFC co-chairs have 14 working days to notify the department whether a meeting to review the proposal has been scheduled. If a meeting is scheduled, the department cannot commit funds unless they receive approval from the JFC.
Lawmakers can anonymously object to projects, and there is no process in statute for when the committee may decide to hold a meeting.
Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) confirmed in January that she was one of the lawmakers who anonymously objected to the Pelican River Forest project.
“The state of Wisconsin owns 5.9 million acres that are either tied up in conservation easements or in public land, and I’m not against public land ownership. That is the size of the state of Vermont,” Felzkowski said during the hearing. “If you want northern Wisconsin to be economically viable, people to be able to purchase land and build homes and enjoy it and live … We have areas that are going broke and we continue to take the tools away from them to allow them to be economically viable.”
Felzkowski emphasized on Tuesday that she was not the only lawmaker to object. Co-chair of the committee Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) acknowledged he was one of the other lawmakers who objected.
Democrats criticized the passive review process, saying it lacks transparency. Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) told the Wisconsin Examiner that it’s unfortunate that legislators are able to object anonymously.
“It shouldn’t be secretive,” Johnson said. “We’re elected officials, we were elected to take votes and to question things and if there’s an issue, we shouldn’t be allowed to question it or to hold up the process or to object, and people don’t know where that objection is.”
Johnson said it’s also difficult to provide answers to Wisconsin residents who are looking to understand the issues with certain projects.
“We will have constituents give calls to our office about a specific issue and their questions are always, ‘Well, who objected?,” Johnson said. “In most cases, we don’t even know who objected. We can… say who we thought objected, but we don’t know with certainty unless the individual says that they were the objector like [Sen.] Marklein did today.”
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) also called attention to the significant delays that the passive review has caused since there are no specific laws related to how soon hearings need to take place.
“Unfortunately, the current law does not have a timeline to when that hearing must take place, so [the Pelican River Forest project] and [other projects] have had months and months, if not years, of delay where there’s been an objection and the project or the proposal languishes in the hallways of the Republican finance offices,” Goyke said.
Goyke pointed out two projects — the Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs and the Milwaukee Modrzejewski Park project — that were held up by the committee for over a year.
The Milwaukee Modrzejewski Park project, which was slated to support new playground equipment, playfield renovations and other needed upgrades and development of outdoor recreation and green spaces for Milwaukee Public Schools, was submitted to the committee on February 25, 2020.
The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust project , which would have provided funds to support the acquisition of the 131-acre Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs Preserve on Lake Michigan, was submitted on June 8, 2021.
Neither project was heard by the committee, and both were withdrawn in August 2022 coinciding with an announcement by Evers that he would fund those projects along with three other projects using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. None of the projects had been reviewed by the Joint Finance Committee following objections by legislators.
Goyke said people who are invested in stewardship projects have grown tired of the delays.
“They’re tired of the uncertainty of how these projects go forward. They’re tired of the man hours that they’ve put into projects and they’re, frankly, tired of the dollars that they put — the landowners or the conservation groups or the advocacy groups or the residents — behind them,” Goyke said.
Evers proposed requiring that the name of any JCF member who objects to proposed action, as well as the reason the member objects, must be recorded and made publicly available in his 2023-25 executive budget. Evers also proposed raising the threshold for projects that trigger the passive review process to $500,000 and eliminating the requirement that DNR obtain written approval for obligating stewardship money for land acquisition located north of Highway 64. He did not include anything in his proposal to address the scheduling of hearings.
Felzkowski said she would be introducing legislation that “says these projects cannot move forward until the local units of government — that are very, very much affected by this — and the residents are 100% on board.”
Goyke responded saying he wants to see changes to the review process.
“I hope that you disempower folks here to secretly object and uphold or stall the process, or that you put a back-end timeline by which this committee must act,” Goyke said. “I can appreciate locals that object to projects, but please look at the other side of the coin, when there are locals that deeply and passionately support a project, but it’s blocked in secret by one member of this committee.”
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