Iron County

Wisconsin plans to buy an easement to protect public access and private logging on 14,000 acres in Iron County.

The state Department of Natural Resources wants to spend $4.8 million to preserve opportunities for public recreation and private logging on more than 14,000 acres of northern Wisconsin woodland.

The amount includes $400,000 that would be placed in a revenue-generating trust fund to pay for long-term maintenance and repair of 16 miles of existing privately owned roads that are now used to log the property in Iron County.

The private roads would be open to public access from July 1 through Dec. 31 each year, providing much easier routes to portions of the property that most people may never have seen, said Jim Lemke, chief of DNR real estate operations.

“It’s a beautiful tract of land,” Lemke said. “Rolling topography and miles of trout streams and unnamed lakes.”

By purchasing an easement on the property, the DNR will ensure that no matter how many times it is bought and sold in the future, it won’t be broken up into small parcels and cleared for development, Lemke said.

The Natural Resources Board will consider approving the deal during its meeting Wednesday in Madison.

The 14,352-acre property is owned by Michigan-based Keweenaw Land Association. It spans four towns and is adjacent to another large state conservation easement, a state natural area and thousands of acres of county forest. The land is drained by nearly 14 miles of streams, including more than three miles of classified trout streams.

Local public roads running off Highways 51 and 77 already provide good access to the property, which is enrolled in the state-managed forest land program. The program reduces property taxes on the condition that owners allow public access for outdoor recreation and follow certain forestry guidelines.

Opening the additional 16 miles of private roads will allow members of the public opportunities to enjoy interior sections of the land that now can only be reached by long overland hikes, Lemke said.

The purchase would be financed through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and the federal Forest Legacy Program.

Lemke called the deal “a fairly significant acquisition,” but the department handled a larger one in Sawyer County last year. That easement included $600,000 for road maintenance, he said.

Some conservationists have questioned spending taxpayer dollars to improve roads owned by a private company, but the alternative would be to watch public access shrink in the future, said Ron Eckstein, a retired DNR wildlife biologist who now volunteers with Wisconsin’s Green Fire and the state chapter of The Wilderness Society.

Some investment companies that own logging land augment profits by selling off sections for development as homes and cabins, Eckstein said.

Over time, if the owners took blocks of land out of the managed forest land program and sold them off, the 14,000 acres in Iron County could end up with many more roads and much less public access than it has now, Eckstein said.

Wildlife benefits when its habitat isn’t broken up into small pieces run through by roads, he said.

“We support it because it keeps big country as big country — big pieces of land, not parcelized,” Eckstein said.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.