In a unanimous voice vote, the Sawyer County Board of Supervisors approved a five-paragraph resolution calling on state and federal representatives to take actions to mitigate the "adverse impacts of climate change."
The passage of the resolution is the first time the supervisors have officially gone on record on an issue that has spawned worldwide dialogue over curbing man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
But the board stopped short of supporting — for now — a second resolution advocating a specific plan known as the carbon fee and dividend, which already has been introduced in Congress and has the support of 60-plus representatives.
The resolution arose out of a Sept. 11 presentation by members of the Citizen Climate Lobby (CCL) to the Land, Water & Forest Resource Committee. Bill Bussey, a retired Bayfield County lawyer and board supervisor and a member of the Chequamegon CCL, presented the carbon fee (or tax) and dividend concept. This would place a tax on carbon at its extraction site or port of entry and use those dollars to pay a dividend to help offset the higher cost to consumers. The idea is to raise the price on carbon production and create incentives for green energy alternatives and initiatives.
Bussey and other members of the CCL, including Dan Herscher, president of the Birchwood Chapter of CCL, requested the committee support a resolution to the board to support a federal bill, H.R. 763, called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act that would put into law the carbon fee and dividend.
The committee took no action on the request in September or at its October meeting, but at its Nov. 6 meeting the committee had two resolutions concerning climate change on its agenda: the resolution that was ultimately approved Nov. 12 by the full board and another supporting H.R. 763.
As part of the proceedings, Eli Geidel, a high school student from Northern Waters Environmental School in Hayward, gave a presentation on the global and local dangers of climate change, including a negative impact to tourism.
On Nov. 6, several members of local CCL chapters again encouraged the committee to recommend H.R. 763 for passage in front of the full board.
Noting the urgency for action, Herscher said, a United Nations study has estimated there exists a 12-year window for a two-thirds chance of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.
"I would not put my children on an airplane if it only had a two-thirds chance of arriving safely," he said, adding that the timeline could be even shorter than 12 years if some environmental "tipping point" was reached with irreversible results.
"We are in a race against the laws of physics and chemistry," Herscher said. "And you cannot negotiate with the laws of physics, so it behooves to advance the best possible solutions as quickly as possible."
Another supporter said he had just returned from the South and was reminded of the efforts of civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s to effect change today and posed an analogy of civil rights workers with those warning of climate change and asked whether local leaders had the foresight to take action today that would impact the health of the planet in the future.
Little GOP support
However, Jim Miller, former aide to retired Congressman Sean Duffy (R-Wausau), questioned whether the county board should be engaged on every piece of federal legislation. He noted that Congressman Duffy had rejected the carbon fee and dividend proposal because he anticipated it would raise the cost of energy consumption on low-and middle-class families. Miller also questioned whether Washington would return the dividend to consumers or withhold it, and lastly he said of the 60-plus bi-partisan sponsors of H.R. 763 only one was Republican.
After the committee voted to recommend the eventual resolution that appeared before the board on Nov. 12, it took up the resolution for 763 but it failed to proceed for failure of a motion.
On Nov. 12 nine people spoke during citizens comments on approving the resolution supporting action on climate change and several of the CCL members asked the board to consider bringing up the H.R. 763 resolution at a future meeting.
"This resolution is an excellent first step as it recognizes the climate crisis is an issue the county cannot solve on its own and will require state and federal action," Herscher said. "It also recognizes that given the scale of the problem many different solutions will be necessary."
He also contended that H.R. 763 would result in 40 percent of carbon emissions by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050 and the dividend would make energy consumption affordable for low-and middleclass families.
Ernest Martinson of Hayward said carbon fee and dividend recognized that the economic market will affect the change to "internalize cost," thus driving investment toward green energy production.
Waldo Asp of the Town of Edgewater said the climate change issue is "certainly the most important issue of our lifetime."
A speaker from the Town of Sarona in Washburn County said that local governments are having to pay for the effects of climate change with extreme weather events like high winds and flooding.
Bussey said CCL had asked for local support of H.R. 763 because there wasn't enough federal will to move forward on climate change initiatives.
Linda Herscher, Dan Herscher's mother, said she got involved five years ago out of concern for the future of her three grandchildren.
"They are very precious to me and I realized by the time they are old enough to vote, climate change may be out of control and their future may be sacrificed," she said, adding that her grandchildren are too young to even understand the issue she is there to advocate for them.
Lorraine Gouge, vice chair of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Governing Council, said tribal people are taught to consider how present actions impact seven generation into the future and she asked the board to "think of all of us."
"Now be it resolved, that the Sawyer County Board of Supervisors urges that the state Legislature and the United States Congress take what action is necessary to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change..."
Resolution supporting action on climate change
In a 4-1 vote on Nov. 15, the Sawyer County Zoning Committee recommended approval of a rezone request for about 2.5 acres at the OO Trailhead in the Town of Spider Lake from Forestry 1 (F1) to Commercial 1 (C1).
The acreage includes an area west of the Birkie Trail, along with the Samuel C. Johnson Family Outdoor Center and an adjoining parking lot. Sawyer County owns the land, but the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) owns the outdoor center.
The rezone request now goes to the full Sawyer County Board for final approval at its December meeting.
The original Oct. 18 request was for 13.6 acres, but then the committee postponed a vote and the rezone came back before the committee on Nov. 14 narrowed to 4.5 acres, which included a portion of the trail and land east of the trail.
During the Oct. 18 public hearing where several people objected to the rezone, several others indicated they would be more amenable to a smaller commercial area. The supervisors took that into consideration on Nov. 15 by continuing to adjust the rezone area.
The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation is seeking the rezone in order to sell coffee and doughnuts and provide other commercial activities at the site..
On Oct. 18 the committee postponed a vote on the rezone pending a review of an amended pre-existing memo-
randum of understanding (MOU) with ABSF as well as a new land lease agreement.
On Nov. 15, the committee had the proposed amended MOU, which spells out the permitted uses, including silent sports activities, sale of food and non-alcoholic beverages and event-related merchandise during an event, educational activities, silent sport training activities and health/wellness activities, one-time rentals for events such as weddings, parties and renting/licensing of spaces for such uses as coffee and doughnut sales, vending machines, silent sport instruction and training.
During the public hearing three people spoke in favor of the rezone — two were ABSF board members and another was an employee. All emphasized the site is open to the public and brings visitors to the area.
Six people, including five from Spider Lake Township, spoke against the rezone. They emphasized that when the town approved a conditional use permit (CUP) for the site in 2017 specifying that commercial use was not part of the application. They said allowing a commercial parcel in a forested area sets a dangerous precedent.
Later in the discussion, corporate counsel Rebecca Roecker offered the opinion that the town's approved CUP was not relevant once the county rezoned.
The county has exercised its authority under state statute to rezone county land without obtaining the town's approval.
Pro and con
Speaking for the rezone were two ABSF board members, Jeff Tumbleson and Sue Scheer. Tumbleson called the rezone "an amenity that can be easily added that is no harm to the Town of Spider Lake," and Scheer noted the facility attracts visitors and activities there would be regulated by the MOU and land lease agreement.
ABSF Event Director Kristy Maki emphasized the center is "free and open to the public," and said the ABSF would like to follow the model on how the county uses Hatchery Creek Park, allowing private citizens to reserve space in the park with a building that is free to the public. She said commercial activities would help pay for the high cost of operating the center.
Among those arguing against the rezone was Wendy Wood, a resident of Spider Lake. She said for nearly 50 years the Birkie had conducted commercial activity in F1 and that hadn't raised any issues. She encouraged the committee to follow the Spider Lake comprehensive plan and find a way to permit commercial activities without a rezone.
Supervisor Bruce Paulsen asked if the county should look the other way because commercial activity was occurring where it shouldn't happen. He also questioned if the OO Trailhead, because of the removal of trees and the open area with parking lot and center, is still classified as a forest.
"It is zoned Forestry 1 and you are talking about Commercial 1," responded Wood. "It is completely different use. It's called spot zoning. The state of Wisconsin is pretty much against spot zoning. It sets a precedent for anyone else to come into this forum and ask for spot zoning inside a forest. I ask you, is that consistent for the comprehensive plan? Is that what we should be doing with our forest?"
Regarding spot zoning — a zoning district different from adjoining districts — Paulsen said it is allowed where it can be shown to have public use and not just private advantage.
Wood noted that Maki had just said the ABSF would garner funds for itself as part of the rezone.
Zoning Administrator Jay Kozlowski said the county could change the F1 conditional uses to allow commercial activity but that would set a precedent for all F1 districts to pursue commercial.
Asked when coffee and doughnut sales would be offered, Maki said it primarily would be during the busy winter skiing season.
Supervisor James Bassett asked if the county is obligated to follow the town's comprehensive plan.
"But in the end, Sawyer County doesn't have to have permission from Spider Lake to do anything with its own land?" he asked and Roeker responded, "Yes."
Mary Keating, another town resident, also objected to the rezone. "I think it is important to keep our forest for our future generation," she said.
"I think we've established that this area up for rezone isn't really a forest," responded Paulsen. "It's a parking lot; it's a building, and it's an exercise area. Am I wrong on that?"
Keating also predicted the rezone would attract more traffic.
Petit noted the kitchen in the center where coffee and doughnuts would be sold is very small, and she also noted that people can hold events, such as weddings, on any public property, and later added it was never the intent to "deforest the forest."
Case Mazik, another town resident and member of its planning review commission, said when the county came to the town requesting a CUP, commercial activities were not mentioned.
Mazik said he was "appalled" at all the allowed activities under the proposed amended MOU.
"The only thing that seems to be the original intent seems to be the first item about quiet sports," he said.
Patrick Delaney, another town resident, encouraged the supervisors to not only reject the rezone but also the proposed amended MOU and land lease agreement.
He said it appeared the county wanted the ABSF to conduct commercial activity and forward some of those funds to the county in the way of a gift, which the county is discussing with ABSF in place of charging an event fee.
During the committee's discussions to again reduce the size of the rezone, Supervisor Troy Morgan said the MOU and land lease would prevent commercial excess on the site, such as a fleet of food trucks parked there, and he didn't see the need for an acreage reduction.
Petit said those speaking against the rezone that day were not addressing the size of the area allowed but were opposed to any commercial activity.
But Chair Ronald Buckholtz and Paulsen said many had previously expressed concern about the acreage allowed and Paulsen made a motion to allow a smaller area, which was eventually approved.
Those voting to approve the rezone to C1 of approximately 2.5 acres included Paulsen, Buckholtz, Bassett and Morgan. Petit voted against.