Devil's Lake State Park

Robert Mueller and Holland Galante, both of Milwaukee, take down their tent amid brilliant fall colors at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo.

The Legislature’s budget committee voted Tuesday to approve $4.3 million in borrowing to conserve more than 14,000 acres of woodland in northern Wisconsin.

But that figure is below the Department of Natural Resources’ $4.8 million valuation of the property, leaving the landowners to decide whether the sizable land acquisition will move forward.

The DNR in February proposed purchasing the 14,352-acre easement in Iron County from the Keweenaw Land Association to preserve both recreational opportunities and private logging.

The easement agreement with the DNR would provide public access to the property in perpetuity while allowing the landowner to keep ownership rights, including the right to log the property according to a DNR-approved forest management plan.

The proposal would ban any development of the property.

The DNR received three appraisals for the easement putting its value anywhere between $4.3 million and $6.5 million. The DNR’s $4.8 million request to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee was meant to reconcile the three estimates.

Mark Sherman, president of the Michigan-based Keweenaw Land Association, declined to comment.

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The acquisition, which now must go before the Land Association’s board, would be one of the larger transactions made through the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program, created in 1989 to acquire land to expand nature-based recreational opportunities and conserve fragile environments.

Since 1991, the DNR has acquired nine properties of more than 10,000 acres through the program, the largest being a 72,958-acre parcel acquired in three phases.

The parcel in question includes productive forest, wetlands, lakes and 14 miles of streams, including more than three miles of classified trout streams.

It spans four towns and is adjacent to another large state conservation easement, a state natural area and thousands of acres of county forest.

Under the arrangement, the Land Association would set aside $400,000 from the purchase price in a permanent endowment to maintain 16 miles of roads on the property to guarantee public access.

Those private roads would be open from July 1 to Dec. 31 each year.

The committee’s unanimous approval comes after lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers approved a two-year extension of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which would have expired in 2020 after being reduced and revised by former Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature.

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