State land for timber

Amid controversy, the state BCPL is considering its first purchase of timber land in more than two years. 

PATRICK DURKIN, For the State Journal

A divided Wisconsin public lands board on Tuesday approved a purchase of new property for the first time in more than two years as Republicans clashed over conservative principles and accusations of dishonesty.

The Board of Commissioners of Public Lands voted 2-1 to buy nearly 1,000 acres, with GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel joining the board’s lone Democratic member against fellow Republican state Treasurer Matt Adamczyk.

Schimel said the land in Oneida County connects smaller, isolated parcels already owned by the board to create a larger bloc that will be more accessible and attractive to loggers, resulting in increased revenue from timber sales to BCPL funds that support libraries and colleges.

But Adamczyk insisted government land acquisition was contrary to conservative principles and that some among the Republicans who control the Legislature were planning to authorize more profitable investment options.

Schimel rebuked Adamczyk several times during the meeting, including when the treasurer questioned the constitutionality of BCPL land buys. The state Constitution empowers the Legislature to pass laws like the 2006 statute that allows the agency to purchase real estate, Schimel said.

“You can’t keep throwing around ‘constitutional duty’ without accurately defining what our constitutional duty is,” Schimel said. “You’re wrong. Dead wrong.”

Schimel also echoed the BCPL’s top administrator, Jonathan Barry, in accusing Adamczyk of stirring political turmoil with erroneous public statements.

“You haven’t made an honest debate, Mr. Treasurer, you haven’t,” Schimel said.

And when Adamczyk complained that Barry had criticized him in a Wisconsin State Journal article, Schimel told the treasurer he had it coming because of the way he has treated agency staff.

“You’ve asked for it,” Schimel said. “The abuse you have heaped on them (BCPL employees) behind the scenes and in public, you deserve it.”

After the meeting Adamczyk said he stood by his statements about land purchases and his stance that BCPL staff should be cut back and their duties assigned to other agencies.

“When you push for change, the staff aren’t going to be appreciative,” Adamczyk said, adding that Schimel seems to just want to maintain the status quo.

A change in culture

Both Schimel and Adamczyk were elected in 2014. Their posts automatically place them on the public lands board. Within months after taking office they halted BCPL acquisitions amid complaints from conservative lawmakers that the state owned too much land.

Schimel and Adamczyk drew widespread attention when they also banned BCPL staff members from doing work related to climate change.

Adamczyk has called BCPL land purchases “environmental activism,“ and maintained the board could earn more income by selling off property and investing the money in stocks, although that isn’t allowed under current law.

That’s among the statements that Barry said is untrue. Barry faulted Adamczyk for citing hypothetical stock purchases.

“Mr. Adamczyk for whatever reason has got his political ideology getting in the way of his fiduciary responsibility to the board and the educational constituents we serve,” Barry said in an interview Monday.

Loggers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to cut timber on BCPL land. The money is one of several streams of investment income the board uses to provide financial support to local libraries and college programs.

The three-member board was created by the state Constitution. The panel’s third member is also an official elected statewide, the secretary of state, currently Doug La Follette, a Democrat.

The Legislature voted in 2006 to give the BCPL clear authority to use proceeds of land sales to acquire new timber land that increased productivity of agency holdings.

Smoldering resentment

Tuesday’s clash had been brewing for weeks. Last month, after Adamczyk issued a press release railing against BCPL “land grabs,” the agency administrator shot back.

“What I have difficulty accepting is the manner in which virtually every assertion you put forth in this release is untruthful, unfounded or purposefully misleading,” Barry wrote in the June 29 email to Adamczyk.

Barry added that Adamczyk’s statements appear “calculated to be gratuitously damaging to this very agency.”

“BCPL’s land purchases are not ‘in direct opposition to the simple constitutional mission of the BCPL’ and you know this,” Barry said in the email quoting an Adamczyk release.

A decades-long Republican and former Dane County executive, Barry said it was the first time he has publicly criticized one of his bosses.

“I’ve never said (anything like) that to a board member in my life in business or in government,” Barry said.

Toward improved value

The BCPL was formed to make use of vast tracts of land granted to the state in the 1800s by the federal government. The board soon sold much of the most desirable acreage with the proceeds going to investment funds.

Large portions of the land the board still owns has little value because it is under water, not accessible by roads, or in small parcels that are inefficient to log, Barry said.

The BCPL buys land adjacent to small parcels it owns to create larger blocs that are more attractive to logging operations and that are accessible, he said.

While Republican lawmakers have long questioned state land buying, the 2006 law allowed BCPL purchases of land that meet at least one of several criteria. Barry said the Oneida County purchase would meet all the criteria.

Under the law, BCPL bought about $14.6 million in productive timberland before Schimel and Adamczyk took office. During the same period, the agency sold $18.1 million worth of unproductive lands, leaving it with 2,572 fewer acres than in 2006, Barry said.

In the 15 years prior to passage of the 2006 law, BCPL annually sold an average of 3.1 million board feet of timber for $275,000. After the law passed and the agency began making acquisitions that created larger, more profitable blocs of land, the average has been 5 million board feet and $656,000, Barry said.

Over the last 30 years, timber land has appreciated in value more than many other investments, so it makes sense to keep such properties as part of the larger investment portfolio, Barry said.

Adamczyk ran for office on a pledge to support the position’s elimination, a proposal that will go to voters in April.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to indicate how long Jonathan Barry has been a Republican.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.