Jon Steigerwaldt | RGS & AWS Forest Conservation Director – Great Lakes/Upper Midwest
In Support of Land Acquisition
“Land, they haven’t found a way to make that out of plastic yet.” These were the words I was left with after a recent conversation with a Chippewa Valley Wisconsin Chapter member of RGS on the scarcity of land and the need to conserve it. That conversation got me thinking more and more about the support RGS & AWS provides to organizations and agencies for their land acquisition goals and endeavors. Support isn’t always seen by our members, but it’s incredibly important to highlight conservation impacts on the ground. That conversation also got me thinking about the need for RGS & AWS to step into the land acquisition, management and ownership arena as part of our Working Forests Model of conservation.
Supporting Partners Who Support our Mission
Conservation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It commonly requires active participation from diverse partners to make it happen. Collaboration is nothing new to the seasoned conservationist and our members. But how conservation partners lend support may not always be clear to our members as it isn’t always direct and can take many forms as part of broader strategies. It can be direct collaboration, financial support for a project or leveraging planned activities and resources. In the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest Region in 2021, collaboration included writing letters of support behind individual land acquisition projects, supporting legislation that funds land acquisitions and providing direct financial assistance to acquire and conserve ecologically/strategically important land. What a busy year it has been for RGS & AWS providing partner support for the acquisition of 72,429 acres of land.
When one of the projects RGS & AWS supported ran into a funding shortfall in 2021, RGS & AWS stepped in and stepped up with $5,000 in cash match towards a 1,252-acre state forest acquisition in Ohio. With most of RGS & AWS’s cash match support coming from the Gilbert R. Symons Chapter, RGS & AWS helped the state purchase a single, contiguous tract of former Mead Paper industrial forest land adjacent to Shawnee State Forest. In a region nicknamed the Little Smokies of Ohio, these lands together are Ohio’s largest contiguous conserved forest (over 63,000 acres) with ruffed grouse populations. It’s also an area that will be managed consistently with the state forest system, allowing public hunting access and supporting high biological diversity and quality wild game habitat. The tract will be managed through Ohio’s Forest Legacy Program – A program that has a core goal of protecting working forests and providing public recreational opportunities, including hunting.
When a Chicago RGS member became aware of Bayfield County, Wisconsin, Forestry & Parks Department’s goal to add 2,177 acres to their 175,749 of working forest, he and RGS & AWS also stepped up.
Being close to several watersheds and Lake Superior, we understood the importance of this project to conserve water quality, prevent forest fragmentation, protect access to recreational opportunities and increase connectivity to a network of existing public and tribal lands. As the Forest Conservation Director for the region, I drafted two letters supporting the projects, and that individual member stepped in with a $5,000 in cash match towards the acquisition project.
When The Conservation Fund (TCF) sought to conserve 70,000 acres in Oneida County, Wisconsin, they knew they needed broad partner support to make their project happen. That’s where RGS & AWS stepped in and provided two separate letters supporting TCF acquiring this large tract of land. Each letter to different funding sources to help make it happen. However, strategy-wise, we knew this alone wouldn’t be enough because an additional potential funding source faced an uncertain future. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund (KNSF,) a long-standing state conservation funding program, has never received permanent funding and was up for reauthorization. To ensure this project had support from RGS & AWS and had the necessary access to funding sources to see it to completion, RGS & AWS rallied our members in support of KNSF. In August 2020, RGS & AWS signed a letter to the governor as part of a 58-organization coalition supporting the KNSF’s reauthorization. In April 2021, we kept the pressure on policymakers as we emailed Wisconsin RGS & AWS members, asking them to contact policymakers to get the reauthorization over the goal line. With our members and coalition partners, we did and, in the process, helped to keep the KNSF available to conservation organizations to fund acquisitions and conservation easements.
A Model for Future Success
Many conservation organizations have built successful models of conservation around the idea of land ownership. For example, The Nature Conservancy owns and manages 25,000 acres in Wisconsin alone and has built a comprehensive program around it. Could RGS & AWS also create a program that includes easements and direct ownership of land? The prospects certainly exist.
The 70,000-acre TCF project in Oneida County, Wisconsin, poses an opportunity to secure a future of managing our working forests. Known as the Pelican River Forest, this forest block was one of the last, large-block, former industrial forests that remained unprotected from development. That all changed with TCF’s acquisition of the Pelican River Forest. Their business model focuses on buying land, placing a conservation easement on it to protect it from development and, in turn, selling the land back into the marketplace so people and organizations can invest in it. Ownership would allow RGS & AWS to steer the management of this permanently conserved property in a way that maximizes wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities at a landscape level, free of most competing interests.
In addition to upland forest acres, the Pelican River Forest features 68 miles of streams, 27,000 acres of forested wetlands and fills a landscape-level gap between the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest and the northwest and Oneida County Forest Land to the southeast. It’s just one of many similar opportunities across the eastern United States. Seeing those potential opportunities through will require innovative strategies, new partners, new funding sources and member support. While there will always be a place for RGS & AWS to help public lands partners secure more public lands, direct ownership to protect the land from development is worthy of consideration. I can’t think of another organization so poised and capable of taking on such projects as RGS & AWS.
For 30 years, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has protected Wisconsin’s lakes and streams, secured critical wildlife habitat and provided world-class recreational opportunities. Use the provided QR code to learn more about the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and the coalition of conservation organizations that support it. You can gain access with most smartphones by opening your phone’s camera, pointing it at this QR code and opening the link when prompted.