January 29, 2024 |Clint Miller

The Journey to Protect Pelican River Forest

I am so delighted to be part of this epic conservation project in my home state of Wisconsin, where I grew up and attended college (go Badgers!). Fishing, hunting and exploring the outdoors were a big part of my upbringing in southern Wisconsin, and access to public land played a key role in those traditions. As I got older, I was frustrated by the fragmented ownership and tiny amounts of public land available in southern Wisconsin. They were always crowded and the private landholdings blocked paths for wildlife corridors and access for recreation.

Clint, Patty and Zeke Miller hiking in Pelican River Forest. Photo by Jay Brittain.

In contrast, northern Wisconsin has an abundant amount of public land, and the opportunity still exists there to prevent the fractured land ownership that plagues the state’s southern region. The two most important drivers of the Northwoods economy are forestry and outdoor recreation. Private landowners — especially large commercial timber landowners — have an opportunity to play a role in conservation of the Northwoods.

That’s why I was so excited when the opportunity came along to protect Pelican River Forest.

In October 2021, The Conservation Fund purchased these 70,000 acres in northern Wisconsin, safeguarding what was the largest privately-owned, unprotected block of forest remaining in the state.  Our interim ownership provides the time to develop permanent conservation strategies to preserve the forest, safeguard jobs and provide public recreational access. To ensure the land remains intact, sustainably managed for timber and with guaranteed public access, our best conservation strategy was to first secure conservation easements from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and then subsequently sell the property to a private buyer, who will be obligated to follow the terms of the easement.

This strategy ensures the land will remain privately owned and on local tax rolls while it is managed to provide timber to local mills, safeguard water quality and protect wildlife habitat under the terms of the permanent conservation easement. Future landowners will also be responsible for maintaining the road system on the property, making it more widely open to the public.

Photo by Jay Brittain.

For me, this was a chance to give back to a state that had given me so much. Our partners in this project and I were excited about all we could achieve. So often at The Conservation Fund we quietly go about doing our conservation work without public fanfare or controversy; that was not the case with this project, and the road to completion was full of twists and turns. While I disagree with the vocal minority that opposed and tried to derail the conservation of this unique forest, I empathize with them. I hope time will prove to them and their children the value of protecting the Northwoods in a way that provides lasting public benefits like clean water, abundant wildlife, recreation and a harvestable forest but does not come with the burdens of public ownership.

We successfully completed the Pelican River Forest easement in January 2024, which will conserve the forest while supporting the community through sustained commercial forest management and ensured public access. I will be forever grateful for the strong and unwavering support of so many folks who came to meetings, wrote letters and helped counter the misinformation coming from a misguided opposition. These advocates reminded me every day how important this project is and how essential it is to preserve the Northwoods for everyone.

Photo by Jay Brittain.

Some of the most positive memorable moments were the opportunities I had to provide tours of the property for neighbors, reporters, hunters, photographers, elected officials, co-workers and even my family. We traversed on and off road, in cars, ATVs, snowshoes, bikes and on foot to experience huge maples with their lush understory of grasses and sedges, the beaver ponds, shoreline of the Wolf River and the only lake on the property consistently hosting a wood duck family. I hiked and drove the roads for hours learning from forestry experts who talked about forest management and lamented the threats faced by similar forested landscapes in the region. The woods never failed to provoke a sense of awe in everyone who visited.

Photo by Jay Brittain.

What is in store for the future of Pelican River Forest now that it is protected? The property is ideally situated to become a regional hub for expanding the network of trails and connecting communities. It will remain a haven for wildlife and people, and an integral tool in protecting the waters of the Wisconsin and Wolf rivers, and absorbing carbon dioxide to fight climate change. And perhaps most importantly, the trees will stand tall for generations to come. In the years to come, I hope to introduce more people to Pelican River Forest, letting them breathe deep and look in awe at the majesty that continues to impress me and all whom I bring there.

The Conservation Fund’s work to protect forests in Wisconsin won’t end here — there are more than 400,000 acres of private commercial forestland in the Northwoods that are vulnerable to parcelization and conversion to non-forest uses. Once that happens, forest recreation and the forest-products industry will forever change. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and its talented and dedicated staff worked so hard to get the Pelican River Forest protected and added to the suite of privately protected lands that are part of Wisconsin’s Forest Legacy Program. I hope we can continue to partner with them in saving these forests, and I thank them for their dedication.


Written by

Clint Miller

Clint Miller is The Conservation Fund’s Central Midwest Regional Director of Conservation Acquisition. Clint’s expert skills as a negotiator and facilitator are invaluable to his work with federal, state and local agencies, corporations and families on complex real estate transactions, conservation easements, mitigation, public and private funding and finance. He enjoys traveling, hiking and exploring new places and spending time with his family.