Earth Day 2023

The Northwoods of Wisconsin is defined by its most abundant and rewarding resource, a resource that impacts the region’s economy, its residents, its visitors, and its image.  This resource is the forest land that makes up the greater part of the Northwoods region.

These forests are plentiful with opportunities and natural wealth.  They are a source of recreation for people enjoying a wide variety of activities.  A few examples include abundant trails and terrain, acreage accessible for hunting and fishing, and a variety of scenery offering pleasurable sightseeing.

As a fixture of the Northwoods forest products economy, these forestlands are the sustainable foundation of the logging, timber processing, and wood products industries in the region. Many Northwoods residents have work that is closely tied to the forest, whether in family logging operations, in sawmills, or as woodworkers adding value to the resource.  Timber and finished products are also shipped out of the area, bringing revenue to the Northwoods.

The forests are the base of the Northwoods tourism economy.  Vacationers come from urban areas to spend time, and their money, lured by the charm of the Northwoods.  They come to enjoy the natural character of the Northwoods, not the development that is rapidly degrading the forests and lakes.

While this can be true of forest lands either publicly or privately owned, public lands offer these, and other benefits, to all of us.  Public lands offer common opportunity to all users equally, locals and visitors alike. Yet, for some time now, many of our political leaders have opposed public ownership. A widely successful alternative, used in numerous states including Wisconsin, is the Forest Legacy Program, which most often funds Conservation Easements through federal US Forest Service grants. Not tax payer supported, but environmental mitigation through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These Forest Legacy grants cover up to 75% of easement value as a boon to participating states.

These easements are a unique public-private partnership, maintaining a privately owned timber base but preventing fragmentation or development and enhancing public recreation. I have always thought this partnership would be a compromise that all could agree to, protecting both our timber industry and our way of life. These Forest Legacy lands also act as insurance in maintaining a portion our Northwoods atmosphere.  While many private lands are being divided into smaller tracts following the trend of forest fragmentation, there is assurance that lands in Forest Legacy will remain viable productive forest, contributing to our Northwoods economy and way of life.  In turn, offering future generations an opportunity to experience what we love and have taken for granted in the north.

In an environmental context, Forest Legacy lands are invaluable.  They are much less vulnerable to fragmentation and deforestation than are most private lands.  They are habitat for the abundant wildlife of the Northwoods.  Water bodies, such as lakes and streams, and water quality are preserved by the Forest Legacy Program.  As large tracts, these lands create expanses of natural ecosystems that protect our complex environments.

The number of threats to the environment grows each year, placing the Northwoods in peril.  At the same time, some of our elected officials have attempted to erode the numerous benefits of Forest Legacy lands, by hampering the ability to create the Pelican River Forest.  They use the false argument that Forest Legacy is a burden.  Perhaps these ill-guided folks do not recognize the fact that a pine forest does not demand services, and requires neither black top roads nor new schools. Or possibly they are beholden to an interest other than the common good.

The Pelican River Forest would be a positive step toward maintaining our very way of life in the Northwoods.  Wisconsin’s share is a mere $71 acre, as 75% of the easement value comes from outside sources. User groups should currently be involved in discussing specifics of the easement to protect and enhance their future, instead of listening to a misinformation campaign waged by a vocal minority in opposition to this incredible opportunity.

The Forest Legacy Program has already demonstrated remarkable value to our state and all of its citizens.  An endorsement of this program and the Pelican River Forest is an endorsement of our Northwoods as a legacy for future generations.

I was proud to be part of the generation which admired preceding conservationists and embraced the Earth Day philosophy. We are currently aging away. Will future generations judge our stewardship with pride?

Joe Hovel is president of Partners in Forestry, a Vilas County based cooperative which recognizes the economic, environmental, social and intrinsic benefits of forest conservation.


Forest Legacy Supporting Facts:

Wisconsin adopted the program over 20 years ago and has over 300,000 acres in the Forest Legacy Program (FLP) using both Knowles Nelson Stewardship and Federal LWCF grants to procure Conservation easements. The FLP has (until now) been bipartisan in WI, with significant projects under governors of both parties.


Federal Forest Legacy Program is administered by the USFS State and Private Forestry division.

FLP is active in 53 states and territories and has protected 2.8 million acres.

Funding has been through the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) which uses a small portion of offshore oil and gas revenue to mitigate environmental damages by conserving land on shore. LWCF was made permanent in 2019 when Pres. Trump signed the Great American Outdoor Act.


2023 cycle of FLP Federal grants awarded $77 million to 14 projects. The award for the no. 2 ranked Pelican River Forest project was the largest at almost $11 million. In this cycle there were 44 project requests totaling $249 million.


Going forward (at least until 2027) the USFS FLP has a boost from the Inflation Reduction Act with the potential to nearly double the current funding level for a decade.



I will give you Idaho republican Governor Brad Little’s example. He approved a Forest Legacy easement that protected 156 square miles of private land from development and said “We’re going to get more of these.  The timber industry likes it, the conservation community likes it, the hunters like it. The community likes it because the land doesn’t get fractured….”