Are we forgetting an option in the public lands debate?

MY FLYFISHING HABIT has led me to believe that I should buy land on a trout stream. I first thought of this plan a few years ago, when my day job was going well enough to allow me to entertain such a potential folly. And so it went, a dedication to the idyllic concept that I could someday walk from my cabin to my stream, without the barbed wire of an aggressive farmer in my way.

How young I was then. I thought I might buy a few acres at first, just a handful, nothing too big. Then I thought of the desired intent of that land, which was to be able to fish, yes, but also to find solitude. If solitude was in order, I would need more acreage, not the scant handful I originally sought. Some land would be okay, but lots of land would be better. And the trout stream needs to be a cold one, not one of those spring-only streams that fish well until the air temps hit 75.

I excel in the art of public records searches, and after some time working with realtors, I took matters into my own hands. I scoured the maps of counties, searching for owners that were done with their land, or that wanted to downsize, or that wanted to cash out. I found beautiful parcels, 40 acres here, 20 acres there. And after weeks of searching I narrowed most of the ideal land down to one owner: The Wisconsin DNR.

Not one to be easily discouraged, I sourced leads from state connections and begged DNR officials at varying levels to consider selling to me. I made offers that exceeded market value, only to be rebuffed each time. I appealed to my local state representative, ultimately to be told that the DNR operates somewhat autonomously, and the only way to change that was through legislation, not back-room channels.

There has been a great deal of public discussion recently regarding the fate of public lands. The argument has unfortunately fallen along party lines, making this discussion exceedingly and unnecessarily partisan. As I understand the two sides, the Republicans want state and federal lands to be sold to the highest bidder, which will always be a multi-national corporation looking to frack the land, warm the rivers, clearcut the forests, and kill the wildlife. The Democrats have never come upon a piece of land that they don’t wish the government to own, because of the children. This is the overly simplistic argument, and there has been no compromise.

The state of Wisconsin has bought at least 650,000 acres of land over the past 25 years. The last proposed budget by Governor Scott Walker froze such purchases, which has elicited raucous outcry from the Democratic legislatures and sporting groups alike. The interest payments alone for these purchased lands is $1.6 million per week, which is a fee too high for a state recently refocused on balancing its bloated budget. The aggressive pursuit of public lands has come at a high cost, and those costs cannot, absent sensational growth, continue without some pause.

The two sides of this debate remain staunchly opposed to compromise, and that deep-rooted inflexibility is based on distrust of the opposing side’s intentions. The right views the constant and continual maintenance of public lands to be a budget buster, and the left views the concept of selling public lands to be akin to stripping our children and their children of a valuable birthright. But aren’t we missing something?

For generations, privately operated conservancy groups have been in the business of both buying lands for preservation, and securing easements on private lands for the purpose of eternal conservation. A lot of conservancy funding comes from state and federal grants, but most of it comes from private fundraising. These groups vary in their purpose and geographies, but all have the same general aim--to preserve lands for future generations. Their model of preserving land without owning it is the key to compromise in this debate.

If states own land for the sole purpose of protecting it and making it a shared natural resource, then the application of conservation easements over such land would accomplish the same goal, no matter who holds the deed, or how many times that ownership is transferred. If the Democrats seek to preserve the land and the Republicans seek to remove ownership from the budgets, then the path forward is strikingly simple, though it will test true motives on each side.

Under this solution, the government agencies—local, state, and federal—would look at their various pieces of held land and apply fitting conservation easements to each parcel before selling it. For instance, if the Wisconsin DNR owns a 40-acre parcel of land at the headwaters of a trout stream, then the state could apply a bevy of deed restrictions on that parcel. There would be an easement for public fishing, and restrictions against future development, except for one single-family residence, to be located in a pre-determined area. There would be a ban on agricultural uses that degrade the streams they border. The use of the land would remain the same, the public would retain their access, the DNR would have sufficiently protected the parcel from detrimental uses, and the property would be sold to the highest bidder.

Under this scenario, the buyer would likely be a private citizen, someone with the same noble intent as the DNR, and given the significant deed restrictions in place, this new owner would protect the land with the same fervor as that institutional owner. For Democrats, the goal of land preservation and public use is met, and for Republicans, the land is removed from municipal ownership and the cost is transferred to the private market, with the added benefit of at least part of the property returning to the tax rolls.

If both sides are being truthful in their purported intentions, then this is a possible solution. But if Republicans really just want to sell the land to extractiveindustry corporations, and if Democrats really just want the government to own it, then neither will consider the idea. As for me, I’d like someone to agree to it, because I really want that cabin someday.