The staff of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) will seek approval today to purchase nearly a thousand acres of land in Oneida County from American Timberland.
The proposal comes as the agency's executive director, Jonathan Barry, and one of the board's three commissioners, state treasurer Matt Adamczyk, traded barbs over the motives of the other in their work at BCPL.
Adamczyk accused Barry and BCPL staff of withholding details about the land-buy proposal in an effort to prevent him from fulfilling his constitutional responsibilities as a commissioner, while Barry said Adamczyk's own political views were getting in the way of his fiduciary responsibility to the agency.
The proposal, to be offered at the board's July 25 meeting, calls for the BCPL to use its land-bank authority to buy 953 acres. According to the proposal, American Timberland has agreed to sell the property for $1,238 an acre, or $1,180,000. It had been appraised at $1,250 an acre, or $1,191,000.
It's unclear if the board will approve the land buy, though historically it has supported such acquisitions. There are three commissioners: Secretary of state Doug La Follette, who is expected to support the purchase; attorney general Brad Schimel, whose position is unknown; and Adamczyk, who has vociferously opposed BCPL land buys on constitutional grounds.
Adamczyk responded to the proposal - and to Barry's refusal to provide him with information before a deal was firmly struck with the landowner and board chairman Schimel had approved it for the agenda - by sending a missive to conservative lawmakers asking for help to stop the purchase, though for the short term there appears little they could do.
For the long term, Adamczyk is calling for legislation to end or modify the BCPL's land-bank authority because he says the agency's constitutional mission is to sell land, not to buy more of it.
"Next Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) is about to start gobbling up private lands again," Adamczyk wrote in his message to lawmakers last week. "I need help to stop this land grab."
In his message, which he wrote before staff released the proposal to the public, Adamczyk said he had few details, but he reiterated his staunch opposition to new purchases.
"All I know for sure is that about $1.1 million is going to be used to buy about 1,000 acres in Oneida County," he wrote. "I am 100 percent opposed to any more BCPL land purchases as the state is already about 20 percent owned by government."
Over the last decade, Adamczyk says, the BCPL staff has advised the commissioners to buy timberland in northern Wisconsin, which, he points out, takes private lands off tax rolls.
What's more, he says, so-called land-bank authority granted to the BCPL mandates the proceeds from any land the agency sells be placed into a segregated account to only be used to purchase more land. At the very least, Adamczyk wants that mandate changed to give the board more flexibility.
Right now, he says, these funds total about $2.25 million and make virtually no interest in a state checking account.
"We shouldn't be buying land," he told The Times in an interview this week. "That's how I read the constitution. It's just silly for us. Whether the DNR has to go out and buy some land for whatever reason - maybe they think it's needed to fill in the blocking of some parcels - they have a much longer review (process), they have the DNR board. We just don't have any reason to be doing it."
In the two-and-a-half years he has been a commissioner, Adamczyk said the board has not bought a single acre of land, but, he said, the BCPL executive director wants to change that, and so might the other commissioners.
"And (executive director) Jonathan Barry is seemingly going ahead with it, and I know Doug La Follette - he's a liberal liberal, and he's going to buy land," Adamczyk said. "He has every right to that view, but I disagree with it. And I'm assuming Brad Schimel must be ready to go along with it because they gave him the board packet to review before it went out and he said, fine, keep it on (the agenda)."
The treasurer also said he is shocked Barry is out publicly supporting the proposal before the board has had a chance to weigh in. Once the proposal packet and agenda was released, Barry approached The Times to promote the recommendation.
"I don't know why he's out there pushing this publicly," he said. "The board can only meet publicly. We have not discussed this transaction. We have done nothing. I don't know how he's out there pushing this because we haven't weighed in. For all he knows, Doug and Brad oppose it. Obviously he probably knows that's not the case, but I don't know why he's doing the salesmanship. I'm confused by that."
But Adamczyk says he's not confused on one issue.
"You know how hard it is to sell government land," he said. "Once this goes government, it's government forever."
The bottom line is, Adamczyk said, the BCPL is not supposed to be buying land.
"We are supposed to use our money to make money for the trust funds," he said. "And once we make that money it goes to all K-12 schools. This $1.1 million. What would it be worth if we put it in an S&P 500 index fund? ... We are a trust fund. We would be better off investing it in either the bonds or the loans, whatever we can invest it in. We have a whole array of investment options."
Pitching the proposal
Under its land-bank program, which was supported by both Democrats and Republicans, the BCPL, which still owns more than 76,000 acres of trust lands granted to Wisconsin upon entering the union, can sell isolated, unproductive parcels, generally located in the southern part of the state, and use that money to buy new land in nine counties in northern Wisconsin, where a majority of the existing acreage is located.
According to the agency, the land-bank idea was to consolidate contiguous blocks of forestland, both to prevent forest fragmentation and to increase the efficiency of BCPL timber harvests, and this week Barry told The Times the proposed Oneida County purchase accomplishes those goals.
"This particular parcel is kind of unique in that it meets every criteria set up in the land-banking legislation," Barry said. "It provides for a reduction in forest fragmentation. The seller has told us clearly they will cut the timber and parcel the land if we are not able to buy it or they are not able to sell it soon. That would be a flow of timber that would stop going into the mills, and loggers would stop having work to do on that parcel. ... This land would be lost for timber production for a generation."
That affects the mills, the loggers, and the timber industry up north negatively, Barry said.
Barry said he had rejected several proposed parcel purchases that did not meet the criteria the way this parcel does.
"In the past, I would have to agree, BCPL has made some purchases since the land-banking law that arguably didn't meet all the criteria," he said.
According to the proposal to be submitted to the board, the purchase of the 953.68 acres of land would improve and protect public access on a sizable block of forestland, and the purchase would likewise provide permanent, legal access to BCPL parcels that previously had no such access.
The purchase of the property would also result in improved management efficiencies as the size of BCPL's block of land would increase and the boundary line work associated with that block would decrease, the board documents state, and the purchase would provide BCPL with productive timberland that could be expected to produce significant revenue for the Trust Funds through future timber harvests.
"The pricing we'll get from timber sales will be higher," Barry said. "When we sell timber off a small chunk of land, the logger has all the organizational costs as he would have on a big one. So we don't get the value of timber - nobody does - if you have small parcels."
Finally, the proposal contends, the land buy would increase the percentage of upland on BCPL property. In addition, the board documents state, the property has been evaluated by BCPL staff against purchase criteria previously adopted by the board, and staff determined it to be appropriate for purchase according to such criteria.
More specifically, according to BCPL staff, the property encompasses 800 acres of productive forest land, 660 acres of timber base, and only 153 acres of nonproductive land. All 953 acres would have public access.
In addition, 40 acres of current BCPL land would become accessible to the public, and 105 acres of current land would become accessible for timber management purposes. Staff says they expect three timber sales within seven years, providing continuous long-term revenue streams for the agency's educational beneficiaries in addition to that in the short term.
"In the last 20 years, timber is the best asset class of all, including stocks," Barry said.
What's more, the board documents state, the property blocks with 1,160 acres of three existing BCPL tracts to form a 2,113-acre tract, while the BCPL is pursuing another 360 adjacent acres that would be acquired from the U.S. Forest Service to form a 2,473-acre block.
The bottom line, staff says, the purchase fulfills all the criteria of the BCPL's land bank authority: improved access, blocking, and timberlands.
In the 15 years prior to Land Bank, a BCPL review of the land bank authority states, BCPL averaged an annual harvest of 3.1 million board feet and sold about $275,000 in timber sales.
"After Land Bank, BCPL has increased its annual timber harvest to about 5 million board feet with annual timber sales of $566,000," the report states. "While there was some nominal inflation during that period of time, these increases are due to three main reasons: BCPL's School Trust Land base is more productive; better access (loggers are willing to pay more for timber if their access costs are lower); and the size of individual timber sales increased significantly (loggers are willing to pay more for timber on larger blocks as their fixed costs do not increase proportionately."
In his message to conservatives, Adamczyk said BCPL staff had not allowed him to see the details of the proposal before the package was released publicly. While Adamczyk told lawmakers he wished he had more specifics to share about the land purchase, he said BCPL staff was blocking his ability to do his constitutional duty.
"I cannot believe this is happening, but as one of three BCPL commissioners, I am not being allowed to see the specifics of the proposal," Adamczyk wrote. "Last Friday, I asked the staff for all the detailed specifics of the land purchase. As a commissioner, I don't even know the exact location of the purchase. Yesterday, on the phone I was told by the staff (Jonathan Barry) that unless Brad Schimel says so he will not give me the information in advance of releasing the board packet on Friday."
Even more shocking, Adamczyk continued, Barry didn't want him to have too much notice because he was afraid Adamczyk would work against the proposal and ruin the deal. Adamczyk reiterated that assessment to The Times last week.
"They were planning to drop it this Friday (July 21) as a normal board packet and then a Tuesday (July 25) vote and he said to me on Monday (July 17) when I called him (he wasn't going to give it to me), and I told him it was public document and how was he withholding it," Adamczyk said. "But I'm a commissioner. I'm one of three. I have every right to see anything he is seeing. That goes for Doug and Brad."
Barry says Adamczyk's version of events is essentially accurate.
"I told Matt (Adamczyk) I would provide him the packet of information for the board meeting if it was going to be on the board agenda after Brad approved it," Barry said. "When Matt put up an objection to that, I called Schimel's office and accelerated the meeting with him and met on Tuesday and he agreed and we handed out that material on Tuesday morning. Normally we don't put our packet out until Friday morning before the meeting."
And, as for Adamcyzk's contention that he should be privy to the same information as Barry is, including upcoming proposals and ongoing negotiations, Barry disagreed.
"When the proposal is ripe, meaning I've got the negotiation on a real-estate transaction completed, I provide complete transparency," he said. "But at the time Mr. Adamczyk was after me, I didn't have a signed option from the seller. So I didn't even know that I could put it on the agenda."
Barry said he contacted the seller, got a verbal representation and then a signed option and actually gave it to Adamczyk earlier than he intended.
"I've been in government and in business a long time, and it's very difficult to do a negotiation on a real-estate transaction or a building or letting bids until such time that you have something real to present," he said. "If you have too many cooks in the kitchen, you can't get anything done, and that, frankly, is Matt's goal: Don't get anything done."
Barry had more to say about Adamczyk.
"In my opinion, he sometimes confuses his political views with his fiduciary responsibility to this agency," Barry said.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.