The Siren School Board is working to better clarify future uses of their school forest properties, which total 120 acres at two sites on two sides of the village, and they want to make sure the rules of usage regarding hunting and timber harvests are clear and part of future board policy, regardless of who sits on the board of education.
The issue came to light during the board’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, Nov. 15, when board member Duane Emery objected to committee recommendations that combined hunting and harvesting issues into one policy measure, which opened the door to debate on a general philosophy of how to use, capitalize and possibly enhance the two forest properties.
The school forest properties were gifted to the district at different times decades ago, and are used as extended classrooms for study and science areas, for educational classes and outings.
However, there have been issues with hunters being in the woods during times when staff and students are also in the woods, which has happened several times, according to high school science teacher Brad Morris.
“Bow hunters have been seen out there (while students were at the forest) but they were very polite and left right away,” Morris said. “A lot of people just see it as another piece of public land.”
The debate over the forest usage also became a discussion over whether there really was a need for more public hunting lands, as well as whether there should be defined policy about the property being used.
During the discussions it was noted that Burnett County owns over 111,000-acres of public forest lands, on top of state DNR-owned lands that includes another 21,000 acres in the Gov. Knowles State Forest, another 13,700 acres in the Fish Lake Wildlife Area, 6,500 acres in the Namekagon Barrens, approximately 5,000-acres in the Amsterdam Sloughs and 3,700 acres in miscellaneous DNR lands, totaling almost 79,000 acres for hunting and other activities just in DNR-controlled lands.
“I think there’s thousands of acres in Burnett County to hunt, do we really need another 80 or 120 acres more?” Morris said with a shrug.
The board seemed to agree, but until a decision is put into policy, the current status quo allows for limited hunting during non-school hours.
“That will continue for now,” district administrator Dr. Kevin Shetler later clarified.
The board spent quite a bit of time reviewing the issue, to decide on if and whether there should be a policy defining the hunting issue, once and for all. Several times during the discussion, it was noted that the original intent of the property was for anything but hunting or trapping, and how the plans for the properties has never really been clarified.
“I’m a hunter, but I do have concerns with kids being out there,” board member Kelly Wiltrout said.
Duane Emery again noted that recommendations cannot usurp established policies, and he suggested the board look closer at a way to make it clear and long-term.
“It’s that committees cannot circumvent board policy,” Emery said, with Shetler in agreement.
“It needs to go to the policy committee (for review) to be brought to the fill board for readings … for possible approval,” board president Peggy Moore said with a nod.
But the forest land debates also centered on how to designate any proceeds from the forest properties, specifically from timber sales, which have generated close to $100,000 in proceeds since the early 1980s. The issue was whether that money should be set aside for forest enhancements and used as a sort of savings account for the lands, or whether to follow procedures from any other property or service sale and put the money in the general fund.
The original committee recommendations were to designate half the forest land harvest monies for back into the forest, for either enhancements and improvements or for programming and maintenance.
In the past, the funds went to the general funds, but after some debate, it seemed the board was split on whether they should start a precedent with splitting the money.
“For me, I feel like the school forest has been getting ripped off for years,” president Peggy Moore said, suggesting they put the funds issue into policy.
Several board members were concerned that other programs or fund raising opportunities might also ask to have any of their monies diverted back into whatever programs generated the money.
“Philosophically, it’s the only extended classroom that generates revenue,” stated principal Wayne Koball, who was one of the original staff members who assisted with long-range planning and maintenance of the school forest properties. “It is it a resource or a savings account?”
There was some disagreement on how to move ahead with any future proceeds with the harvest, but in the end, the recommendation to designate half the money back to the forest prevailed in a 4-to-3 vote.
It was also revealed that there may be an additional donation of land to the school forest program at Siren, although details on that donation were unclear, and it requires action on several levels, as the lands would go from being privately owned and taxed to being non-taxed property, which requires approval on several levels of government. There are also several state statutes regarding how school forest lands are concerned.