Wisconsin Reviewing More Public-Land Sales

By Patrick DurkinAugust 16, 20162 Comments

Wisconsin’s bowhunters might not realize it, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is now in the third and final phase of land evaluations to meet the Legislature’s “Act 20” law of 2013 to offer 10,000 acres of state-owned hunting and fishing properties for sale by June 30, 2017.

The Wisconsin DNR, which is charged with creating these real-estate listings, identified 7,040 of the mandated acres during the first two reviews in 2014 and 2015. The final 3,000 acres will come from a new list of 128 properties totaling about 5,300 acres.

pond photo

The Wisconsin DNR is reviewing 128 state-owned properties as part of a 10,000-acre sell-off mandated by the Legislature’s Act 20 in 2013.


The DNR released that list June 17, a Friday, at midafternoon — a classic time to make public announcements you’d prefer not to discuss. Friday afternoons, after all, are often distinguished by empty desks and quiet hallways in newsrooms and government offices, whether it’s Washington, Madison or City Hall.

Bowhunters who missed the DNR’s announcement shouldn’t take it personally. Besides, the list didn’t disappear over the June 18-19 weekend. You can go online at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands/RealEstate/landsale.html to see if your favorite state lands are candidates for sale. Or visit the DNR’s website, dnr.w.gov, and type “land sales” into the search window.

The 128 parcels are being reviewed by DNR staff to assess their recreational and natural-resource values, as well as their “fit” with adjacent or nearby public lands and land-use programs. These properties are located in 37 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. The DNR expects to complete its review before September, and then prepare a final list of properties recommended for sale. It will present those recommendations Sept. 28 to the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board for approval.

wisconsin landscape

More than half the state-owned public lands now being reviewed for sale are located in southeastern Wisconsin.

Given that the DNR Board previously approved 7,040 acres for sale, DNR staff will likely remove about 2,300 acres from the current review list. During the initiative’s first phase in 2014 the DNR reviewed 33 parcels, and put 22 totaling 1,407 acres on the state’s “For Sale” list. As of Wednesday, 11 of those parcels totaling 397.27 acres (28 percent) had been sold.

During the second phase in 2015 the DNR reviewed 149 parcels, and put 82 totaling 5,633 acres on the list. These parcels have not yet gone on sale.

wisconsin hunter on road

Bowhunters often like hunting Wisconsin’s smaller, little-known public properties because they’re easily overlooked.

This current phase of land-sale candidates is heavily focused on southeastern Wisconsin, which seems odd, given that it’s the state’ most populated region. Public land in this region is already at a premium, yet this relatively small area lists more than half of the state-owned parcels being evaluated for sale. More specifically …

— Of the 128 parcels under review, 72 (56.25 percent) are located south and east of a line from Manitowoc County to Dane County. Leading the way with 31 parcels is Jefferson County (24 percent); and then Dane with 12 (9.4 percent); Racine, nine (7 percent); Sheboygan, four (3 percent); Manitowoc, Ozaukee and Waukesha with three each (7 percent); Dodge and Walworth with two each (3 percent); and Rock, Milwaukee and Fond du Lac with one each (2.3 percent).

Although Jefferson County has only one parcel exceeding 100 acres — a 108-acre property north of U.S. Highway 18 and the Glacial Drumlin Trail — its 31 properties on the list total a state-leading 837 acres.

Which reminds me: The current property list has a certain “remnants” feel because of its relatively small properties. Consider:

— 4-acre average for the 22 parcels on sale from Phase 1, and a 69.5-acre average for the 81 parcels on sale from Phase 2.

— Phase 2 featured Act 20’s largest properties. Of those 81 parcels, 16 covered 100 or more acres, including a 912-acre patch of forest in Iron County; a 400-acre natural area in Iron County; and a 464-acre property in Forest County.

— The current phase lists 12 parcels of at least 100 acres, but none approach 400 acres. Six of those 12 properties are in north-central Wisconsin. Lincoln County has three large parcels on the list totaling nearly 711 acres, including the phase’s largest property, a 330.5-acre fisheries area below the Rice River Flowage. Vilas County has two large properties totaling 275 acres, and Langlade has a 129-acre inholding along Spring Creek.

hunter dragging deer

The current volume of public hunting and fishing lands being offered for sale in Wisconsin is nearly six times greater than the long-term average.

Four of the 12 larger pieces are in southeastern counties. Besides the 108-acre parcel in Jefferson County; the region’s other 100-plus-acre parcels are in Racine County, 101 acres; Sheboygan County, 127.5 acres; and Kenosha County, 161 acres. The other two large parcels are in Sawyer County, 264 acres; and Jackson, 100.6 acres.

Even though the Legislature initiated Act 20 under the justification of paying down debt on the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, the DNR’s June 17 press release suggests “sales and exchanges are part of the department’s routine management of its land holdings.”

And among the “Frequently Asked Questions” on its land-sales web page, the DNR notes it owns 1.52 million acres and holds easements on 300,267 acres. Therefore, selling 10,000 acres represents less than 1 percent of the agency’s land ownership.

The agency continues that “routine cleaning” theme by noting: “Land sales are a regular part of managing this land base. Between 1876 and 2013 the department sold approximately 80,000 acres of land.” Elsewhere the DNR notes it sold 14,220 acres from 1990 to 2013.

One difference, of course, is that previous sales were genuinely routine efforts to sell lands that were clearly poor fits for public use or DNR management.

A bigger difference is the volume of sales. In those 138 years from 1876 to 2013, the state sold an average of 580 acres annually. And in those 24 years from 1990 to 2013 the DNR sold only slightly more, about 592.5 acres annually. In contrast, Act 20’s three-year program calls for sales nearly six times that number.

It’s the Legislature’s prerogative, of course, to mandate such sales. The DNR, however, shouldn’t cover for lawmakers by trying to justify Act 20’s impacts as standard routine.

Let the Legislature find its own apologists.

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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