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The DNR, Conservation, and Corporate Welfare

Written By: Travis Buhler  |  Posted: Friday, May 18th, 2012

For anyone who has been in the far northern counties of Wisconsin, there is definitely no shortage of forest land.  Yet environmentalists, hunting and tourist organizations, and lumber industries all agree that $17 million should be borrowed by the State of Wisconsin to keep trees growing on over 67,000 acres in Douglas and adjoining counties.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) plans on giving Lyme St. Croix Forest Company the $17 million in exchange for the investment company not developing the properties.  According to the DNR:

"The Lyme St. Croix Forest easement restricts development, requires sustainable forest practices, limits property subdivision and ensures public access as well as protecting the environmental values of the property."

The government in Madison has a long list of reasons for this large expense.  Rob Bohmann of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress summarizes them in his statement, "This unique public-private partnership between the DNR and private industrial forests really demonstrates how we can achieve both long term protections for our land and the environment while also preserving the forestry based economy, jobs and tourism that defines northern Wisconsin."

There are several things wrong with this action.  First, if the State budget is as tight as both political parties argue, then why should we borrow and spent $17 million dollars for this unessential program? 

Second, assuming that the forests in Wisconsin are being lost, is it the government's job to protect them? 

If people want the forest and its creatures preserved, they should buy the property themselves and keep it that way.  There are many who do this already in northern Wisconsin.  They call it "my hunting land up north."

The third problem with this purchase is the State's desire to provide access to hunting land for hunters.  According to Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association President Al Lobner, speaking for the Hunters Rights Coalition, "We know well that timber tract owners are under pressure to sell their lands for development.  This purchase provides access for the public to an amazing natural resource."

I agree with the premise behind the name "Hunters Rights Coalition".  We have a right to hunt.  But does that mean that the government should buy us land so that we can have a place to hunt?  This is no different than the government buying someone a house because we all have a right to property, giving us welfare because we have a right to pursue happiness, giving us free health care because we have a right to life, or buying us all commercial air time because we have a right to free speech.

Of all people, hunters should not be demanding the government to pay for their hobby. 

The fourth reason for this easement is to preserve tourism by limiting "development".  But just what is being developed?  It is summer cabins, resorts, hotels, and commercial retail buildings that are part of the tourist industry.  The people developing this forest land aren't stupid, they want to preserve as much of the natural habitat as they can in order to draw tourists to their facilities.  Not all tourists want to camp in a clearing in the woods eating only raspberries and pine cones.

The last reason this purchase should be opposed is because it is corporate welfare - government programs designed to provide funds to private businesses.

Let me explain, a generation ago, only a few lumber companies - like paper mills and building supply companies - owned the large tracts of industrial forest land.  Many of them started selling the properties to investment companies like Lyme St. Croix, so that they can focus on processing lumber rather than managing the forests.  These investment companies would sell the lumber to the processors and the profits would go to the investors.

If the profits from the lumber sales weren't high enough, the investment companies would have to sell some of the land to developers in order to maintain profit.  This would result in a lack of lumber being available for the lumber processors.  There are also the added costs of having to buy lumber from an increasing amount of providers rather than just a couple large forest managers.

According to Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel, "The transaction with Lyme Timber comes in the wake of a huge change in forest ownership in the state. Much of the land once held by paper companies has been sold to investment companies, with paper companies using proceeds for other facets of their business."

In other words, investment companies like Lyme St. Croix aren't making a profit by owning and managing large tracts of forest land.  Therefore they need the government to pay them $17million to keep the land and manage it.

This is something they readily admit.  In the DNR press release:

"'Lyme has a long history of owning and managing large forestland properties under conservation easements that provide a steady flow of wood to local mills, regular employment for forest managers and logging contractors, while allowing public recreational access.' [said Tom Morrow, Managing Director, The Lyme Timber Company.]

"The Lyme property provides wood products to 12 pulp, saw timber and telephone pole processing mills and other supporting industries in the region. The Wisconsin forest products industry employs 60,000 workers and provides $18 billion in economic value in wood and paper products. Wisconsin leads the nation in employment and the value of shipments in the forest products industry.

"'Maintaining large blocks of working forests is critical to the health of our industry,' said Butch Johnson, owner of Johnson Timber in Hayward and Flambeau River Papers in Park Falls. 'We've seen the break-up of many of our former industrial forests in Wisconsin, and these conservation easements are invaluable public-private partnerships to meet the needs of the public and protect jobs.'"

This is nothing more than a bailout under the disguise of forest conservation. I oppose job loss like most people, but the answer isn't throwing government money with its shackles at an industry. 

The answer is to ease up or eliminate the many regulations the government imposes upon these industries.  Whether it is how much timber can be harvested or the paperwork required when a company purchases lumber, if the costs of compliance were shrunk, the savings would result in more profit.  And if there is more profit in the lumber industry, it will result in a greater desire to preserve the precious forests of northern Wisconsin.

Travis Buhler is the Editor of the Eau Claire Journal.

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