Wisconsin private landowners have registered more than a million acres in an open-managed forest program for recreational public use in exchange for tax subsidies.

The report from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation indicated that in certain areas public use has been denied.

Monday, legislators promised legislation to remove the legal loopholes in the hope of preventing property owners from receiving tax breaks while denying public usage, according to the report.

The report counted almost $29 million in tax subsidies annually for landowners’ participation in the project.

In response to the report, Gov. Scott Walker announced an online mapping tool Tuesday that aims to help people find land open to the public, according to a statement from Walker’s office.

The statement said the program works as intended for the most part.

“[Managed Forest Law] land plays an important role in Wisconsin’s timber industry, the tourism industry and in our state’s rich hunting heritage,” Walker said in the statement. “Lands enrolled as ‘open’ in this program must be accessible. The mapping tool will raise awareness about specific parcels of land that are open to the public.” 

One Wisconsin Now spokesperson Mike Browne said Walker’s Department of Natural Resources has failed to fulfill its purpose, calling Walker’s announcement of the mapping website “belated.”

Browne said this is a “serious issue of fairness.”

“Landowners are getting tax breaks in exchange for allowing public access; while the vast majority are holding up their end of the bargain, some are not,” Browne said.

According to the statement from Walker’s office, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp has acknowledged the shortcomings of the legislation.

Stepp said she understands some of the MFL land parcels are “hard to find.”

“This new tool was developed in response to immediate concerns that some of the lands are hard to find, especially for the upcoming hunting season,” Stepp said.

Browne said despite the release of the online tools, the recent investigation revealed Walker’s DNR administration is irresponsible to the public.
Browne said the DNR under Walker has consistently failed to serve the public properly.

“Unfortunately this seems like yet another example of the Walker DNR, which has consistently spent more time protecting polluters and serving the politically well-connected, failing to pro-actively serve the public interest,” Browne said.

Rep. Helen Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said there are several advantages and disadvantages of MFL.
Roys said some landowners are not opening up the land for recreation.

“I think that there will be a public document that will look into this issue and why this program was not adhered to by the participants,” Roys said.

When asked what the landowners may do to prevent the measure, Roys said they will most likely lean to the rules of the legislation.

Roys said she hopes the landowners will comply because otherwise, they will lose their tax advantage.

“Some of them are working with impunity to prevent them to use the land,” Roys said. “Or, they might ignore it and hope it goes away. These landowners who are taking advantage of this program probably hope that the problem disappears.”

Roys added more government insight could fix the problems of loopholes in the system.

Roys said this shows stronger accountability is needed when it comes to tax credit.

“We need to be sure that public revenue and tax advantage programs have the regulatory might to makes sure that they are not being abused by big powerful corporations,” Roys said.