March 20, 2004

Commentary by Joe Hovel

Published in the Vilas County News-Review and aired on WXPR radio.



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


These forests are plentiful with opportunities and natural wealth.They are a source of recreation for people enjoying a variety of activities.A few examples include abundant trails and terrain, acreage accessible for hunting, and a variety of scenery offering pleasurable sightseeing. As a fixture of the Northwoods forest products economy, the 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, on sawmill crews, or as woodworkers and builders.Timber or finished products are also shipped out of the area, bringing in dollars from outside of the Northwoods.


The forests also bring dollars to the Northwoods through the 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 overtaking 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 have the distinction of being open in common to all users, locals and visitors alike, while not being a tax burden on certain individuals.In a win-win situation for both citizens and municipalities, the State of Wisconsin makes payments from itslands to all towns and school districts in lieu of taxes, at the same rate that the land would be assessed at under private ownership.Since 1991, towns receive compensation from the State just as though the land were on the tax roll.


These commonly owned lands also act as insurance of the preservation of our Northwoods atmosphere.While many private lands are being divided into smaller tractsfollowingthe trend of forest fragmentation, there is assurance that lands in public ownership will remain viable forest, contributing to our Northwoods economy and way of life. In an environmental context, public lands are invaluable.They are much less vulnerable to fragmentation and deforestation than are privately owned 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 effect that public lands have to keep population densities low.With large tracts,these common lands create expanses of undeveloped ecosystems that preserve natural environments.


The number of threats to the environment and our Northwoods grows each year. At the same time, many of our elected officials have attempted to erode the many benefits of the public lands, by hampering the Stateís ability to purchase land, and even encouraging the sale of public lands.They use the false argument that these resourcesare a burden to own.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.


An increase in public lands would be a positive step toward preserving the Northwoods.In the next few months, we may be given an opportunity to comment on the expansion of the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest.With this potential expansion, the State of Wisconsin is granted the ability to negotiate possible land purchases with willing sellers, perhaps ultimately connecting the existing NHAL forest to the Ottawa National Forest in Michiganís upper peninsula.


Public forest lands have demonstrated their remarkable value to our state and all of its citizens.An endorsement of public lands is an endorsement of our Northwoods as a legacy for future generations.Because of the great sacrifices of our predecessors, these publicly owned lands and the riches they hold belong to us all.For this we can be very proud.


Will future generations judge our stewardship of this resource with pride?



[Expansion of the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest was approved by the Wisconsin DNR board in October 2005.]