Anger in Wisconsin over plan to sell public spring trout ponds

Beautiful wild brook trout such as this attract anglers to spring-fed ponds in Wisconsin's Langlade County. Thirteen properties that contain small trout ponds are among the more than 100 parcels the state is considering selling.


By Mark Taylor


Jim Hauer is not happy.


Nor should he be.

Hauer, a TU member who lives in Allouez, Wisc., recently learned that the Wisconsin state government is considering auctioning off some publicly owned land parcels that contain spring ponds inhabited by native brook trout.

The 13 properties in Langlade County that contain the small ponds are among 118 parcels covering 8,300 acres that the state has identified as potentially being offered for sale.

“Nobody knew about this,” Hauer told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Lee Berquist for a story that ran on Aug. 19. “It’s outrageous.”

People know about it now, and the sentiment is strong.

Within a day of its publication, Berquist’s story had been shared more than 1,400 times on Facebook and had garnered more than 350 public comments.The majority of the feedback is from people such as Hauer who are angry that the state would consider liquidating public outdoor recreational resources.

The situation comes as lawmakers in many states—particularly in the West— are fighting to wrest ownership of public lands from the federal government and transfer them to the states for management. Unfortunately, transferring public lands to cash-strapped state governments is not economically feasible (and it’s likely unconstitutional, too), and the fear is that, once state legislatures come to the collective realization that the cost of managing public lands exceeds states’ fiscal means, the land will simply be sold to private interests or leased for industrial development without proper environmental oversight, or without thought to a burgeoning recreation economy.

And, sadly, the Wisconsin proposal is proof that those fears are well-founded.

Adding insult to injury for Wisconsin fishermen, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has previously invested in some of the ponds, having conducted dredging operations.

In other words, public property belonging to all citizens of Wisconsin that has been improved by public money could be sold to private interests.

The heart of the issue is, of course, money.

In 1989, the Wisconsin Legislature created the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program in order to preserve wildlife habitat and natural areas, protect water quality and fisheries, and to expand outdoor recreation opportunities.

But with interest payments alone on the debt running at about $1 million per week, the program has drawn the interest of GOP lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker. The Legislature recently directed the state to put 10,000 acres of state-owned land up for sale by the middle of 2017.


Wisconsin’s budget challenges are real, and they are serious. Unfortunately for sportsmen, they may have to bear the cost.

Public land is an invaluable resource for our nation’s sportsmen. And while disposing of it might be a quick budgetary fix, the long-term impact on the state’s economy from public lands disposal could be very detrimental. For instance, in Wisconsin alone, outdoor recreation accounts for $11.9 billion in consumer spending and raises nearly a $900 million every year in state and local tax revenue. Fishing alone in Wisconsin accounts for nearly $1.5 billion in direct consumer spending—and Wisconsin is home to more than 1.2 million licensed anglers, many of whom fish public waters on public lands.

Ownership and management of public land is not inexpensive. But dumping the immediate financial burden associated with it and putting at risk a growing recreation economy that is a serious driver in Wisconsin amounts to being penny wise and pound foolish.

The situation in Wisconsin could be a foretelling of sorts. Other states that desire the management responsibility must also be prepared to saddle the costs associated with it. Here’s hoping Wisconsin’s lawmakers can find a more creative solution to this challenge than simply cashing in and turning a public resource over to private hands.

Mark Taylor is Trout Unlimited's eastern communications director. He lives in Western Virginia, and spends plenty of his free time pursuing native wild brook trout in the federally owned George Washington and Jefferson national forests, and in Shenandoah National Park.



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