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Dave Linderud of the Lower Chippewa River Alliance stands on a restored prairie near Durand that is part of the land Xcel Energy has offered to sell to the state.

DURAND — Conservationists are urgently petitioning legislators to reconsider approving a $1.1 million state stewardship grant requested by Landmark Conservancy to purchase 1,024 acres from Xcel Energy to expand the Tiffany Wildlife Area along the Chippewa River in western Wisconsin.

The conservancy, formerly known as West Wisconsin Land Trust, has already secured a $1.4 million North American Wetland Conservation Act matching grant, which is scheduled to expire in April 2020. It would make up the other half of an appraised purchase price of $2.4 million.

The state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which must approve the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program grants exceeding $250,000, received the conservancy’s application from the state Department of Natural Resources in May 2018.

No action was taken by the JFC since one member of the Republican-controlled committee (12 Republicans, four Democrats) anonymously objected, effectively stalling the purchase.

Attempts to ask JFC Co-chairs State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, if they would re-convene on the conservancy’s stewardship request were un-answered.

“The objection that occurred 16 months ago has never been explained,” Rick Remington, conservation director for the conservancy said in an email with supporters of the purchase. “Protecting these lands is crucial.”

One of the JFC members, State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who is a grandson of Herbert O. Tiffany, for whom the 13,000 acre wildlife area is named, has long criticized the state stewardship funding program.

“I am objective when reviewing all stewardship proposals and my concerns have been consistent,” Tiffany said. “ Stewardship has helped us preserve natural areas and expand access to recreational activities. However there has been a great amount of land taken off the tax rolls and the debt saddled on the taxpayers of Wisconsin related to these purchases is substantial. We’re talking 1.8 million acres and $795 million of existing debt, not including what was authorized in the most recent state budget. I don’t think most people realize that 1 in 5 acres of land in Wisconsin is owned by government.

“Some questions that come up are: is the state getting a good deal for the land, is the land already accessible to the public, what value does this provide to the public, how does this impact local tax rolls and who might purchase the land if the state doesn’t?”

Pam Rasmussen, siting and property rights manager for Xcel in Wisconsin, said the company is not actively marketing the some 4,000 acres still owned in the TWA boundary area. The company has contacted leaseholders holding hundreds of acres offering to sell the leased land to private individuals, she said.

“We are excited to see it move forward,” Rasmussen said. “We are fine waiting for the political process to work through.”

Xcel recently sold 320 acres to a nearby dairy concentrated animal feeding operation for liquid manure spreading, according to Elanor Wolf of Eau Claire, a member of the Lower Chippewa River Alliance.

“These sandy soils are highly permeable and allow pollutants to migrate into the groundwater, then to be transported to the Chippewa River,” Wolf said. “ We can’t save all the Xcel land, but we can try to save 1,024 of the critically important acres.”

The proposed purchase covers two parcels surrounded by TWA lands — the Meridean Barrens, 562 acres north of Durand, and the Stump Lake property covering 462 acres.

The Meridean Barrens connects with some 990 acres , the former Tyrone property, that the DNR bought from Xcel for $1.89 million in April 2017 after a similar procedural delay in the JFC brought on by debate over appraisals and purchase price.

The Meridean tract contains more than 10,000 feet of frontage on Dusham Creek, a cold-water tributary to the Chippewa River. Protection of the creek would benefit state-listed fish and mussel species and a federally-endangered bullhead, the DNR said.

The Stump Lake purchase brings the entire Stump Lake into public conservation ownership and links with the contiguous publicly-owned Tiffany Bottoms.

“The Stump Lake parcel is one of the best duck hunting spots in the Tiffany,” said Dave Linderud, a LCRA member and retired DNR wildlife manager in the area. “It is has been open to public hunting since acquired by Xcel almost 40 years ago. It is a shallow rice-filled lake that attracts many species of waterfowl. This parcel would easily attract a private buyer if the land trust does not acquire it.”

Both properties would be open for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, cross country skiing and wildlife viewing.

Numerous national and local conservation organizations and rod and gun clubs are funding partners contributing to the purchase.

Harold Tiffany, another of H.O. Tiffany’s grandsons, said most of his family is in support of the purchase.

“No doubt my grandfather would want this sale to go through,” he said.

Carlson is a freelance writer who lives in Eau Claire.