Wisconsin’s Northwoods

Deeper Environmental Impact Review of U.S. Forest Service Fourmile Logging Project Needed

ELPC Calls for Deeper Environmental Impact Review of U.S. Forest Service Fourmile Logging Project in Wisconsin’s Treasured Northwoods

Fourmile project will result in dramatic forest clearcutting, unnecessary road construction, and threat to ecological systems and wildlife habitats

 Rhinelander, Wisc. — The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) filed a Notice of Objection with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to their draft decision and finding of “no significant impact” for the proposed 55,000-acre Fourmile Vegetation Project. Fourmile would allow for 12,000 acres of logging and more than 1,000 acres of clearcutting in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF), part of the treasured Northwoods in northeastern Wisconsin. ELPC calls for a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) after the Forest Service’s draft finding on March 21 approved a superficial Environmental Assessment that ignored aspects of the project that are highly controversial or uncertain.

“The Forest Service proposes timber sales that will thin the oldest tree stands, harm water resources, and threaten the American marten, wood turtles, and other species,” said Justin Vickers, Staff Attorney at the Midwest-based ELPC. “A logging project of this size normally would trigger an EIS and that’s what we’re requesting here.”

In cooperation with scientists, ELPC filed a comment letter last June with the Forest Service over the initial timber sale proposal in that area stating at the time that it should be examined more closely with an EIS. The Forest Service proceeded with the less rigorous Environmental Assessment, but now ELPC is challenging that as insufficient, pointing to significant scientific controversy surrounding such actions as they propose.

“There is good case law to support our position that a rigorous study with an EIS is necessary,” Vickers said. “We also demonstrated in our objection letter that the scientific data the Forest Service used in its study are flawed.”

The Fourmile project, located east of Eagle River, includes plans to build 1.2 miles of new road and about 50 miles of road reconstruction in a valuable national forest that already exceeds road density standards. The Forest Service plan would log and disturb old-growth and mature forests that support many rare species including the threatened American Marten and wood turtle. Logging also reduces the forests’ ability to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, a highly effective way to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change.

“This inadequate Environmental Assessment approach gives logging primacy over habitat protection, carbon pollution reduction, and water protection,” Vickers added.



Scott Strand Joins Environmental Law & Policy Center as Senior Attorney to Expand Natural Resources Protection Advocacy in Upper Midwest

The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) is pleased to announce that Scott Strand, an experienced public interest litigation attorney and environmental policy advocate, will join ELPC as a Senior Attorney focused on natural resources protection issues and opportunities in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains states.  Strand is a Minnesota native, bringing 30 years of litigation experience to his new environmental role at ELPC.

Strand most recently served as Executive Director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) for six years. He and MCEA have played key roles in securing state regulations that protect Minnesota’s waterways, retiring old highly-polluting coal plants and keeping harmful sulfide mining proposals at bay.

Strand previously served for 17 years in senior positions at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, including as Deputy Counsel and Manager of the Natural Resources Division. He also worked at a private law firm on diverse business and public sector litigation.

Scott Strand said:  “Joining ELPC presents an exciting opportunity for me to work at a regional organization that uses a diverse strategic advocacy approach to preserve the Midwest’s vital natural resources.  I look forward to working with ELPC’s strong multidisciplinary team of public interest attorneys, environmental business specialists and policy experts to better protect the special places in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest.  This is a great opportunity for me to help make a difference by focusing my work as a full-time public interest lawyer on important litigation and advocacy campaigns to protect our Midwest environment.”

ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner said:  “We welcome Scott Strand to ELPC’s strong public interest advocacy team.  Scott is a talented litigator and knowledgeable environmental policy advocate who has been a valued colleague.  We look forward to Scott now joining ELPC to expand our important work to protect vital natural resources and the wild and special places in the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest including the Driftless Area, Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Northwoods. Scott will provide additional experienced legal firepower for ELPC and our clients and colleagues to succeed.”

Strand will be based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, which is a regional hub in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, and is a key place for natural resources protection issues and opportunities, and for clean energy development.

WBEZ Worldview: Earth Day Quiz

Greenwire: Midwest law center can compromise but doesn’t fear a fight

Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, February 27, 2015

Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.

Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.

His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.

“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”

ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.

Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.

Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.

“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”

Howard Learner launched the Environmental Law and Policy Center 20 years ago.
Howard Learner launched the Environmental Law and Policy Center 20 years ago.

Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.

Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.

He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.

In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.

The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.

The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.

“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”

Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.

The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.

At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.

Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.

“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.

ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.

Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.

Looking for opportunity

ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.

Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.

“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”

To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.

Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.

“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.

Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.

“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”

That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.

Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.

“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.

He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.

“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”

Battling energy tycoon

Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.

ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.

And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.

There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.

ELPC’s victories include protecting regional waterways like the Chicago River from contaminated discharges.
ELPC’s victories include protecting regional waterways like the Chicago River from contaminated discharges.

An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.

Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.

McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.

Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.

ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.

They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.

Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”

There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.

Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.

“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”

ELPC’s New InMinnesotaWater.org Is Dedicated to Protecting Minnesota’s Lakes and Rivers


ELPC’s innovative new InMinnesotaWater.org brings to life the water quality issues important to Minnesotans. From taking families to one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes to revitalizing riverfronts and hunting for ‘sexy owls,’ this storytelling and advocacy tool highlights the people and waterways that make Minnesota special.

Minnesota is home to challenging water pollution problems both urban and rural, but it is also home to some pristine water bodies and to families, business owners, anglers, kayakers and community leaders who are trying to make a difference. ELPC’s new website provides users with the opportunity to make a difference by:

  • Taking action by communicating with your local and state decisionmakers

Please join us in promoting safe, clean waters in Minnesota by using these tools and asking your friends and family to do the same.

This isn’t just about Minnesota’s water or environment. It’s about Minnesota’s citizens. Business owners who are trying to do the right thing. Families who are enjoying the outdoors together. Community leaders who want to demonstrate why clean, safe water is a basic right for all and why we all have the responsibility to be good stewards.

Please enjoy reading, watching and acting on
these stories about Minnesotans and our lakes and rivers:

StoryPreview-DuluthFlooding StoryPreview-ElyMining2
StoryPreview-LakesToDeath StoryPreview-MississippiRiver

Michigan Radio: Power line fight in the U.P.

“New power lines would cut a swath for more than a hundred miles through northern forests, and they’d be expensive,” says a story by Bob Allen for The Environment Report.  ELPC is working to ensure the proposed new transmission lines are studied thoroughly instead of fast-tracked through a proposed special process. Read the story.

Milwaukee J-S: Groups oppose rush toward northern Wisconsin power lines

ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “Consumers should not be asked to pay for $1 billion of new transmission lines running through Wisconsin’s North Woods, without a full and fair review of alternatives that might save money and prevent the disruption of key habitats and natural areas.” Read the article.

$1 Billion Transmission Proposal Should Receive More Thorough Review of Costs and Alternatives, Not Fast-Tracked Special Treatment

Environmental Law & Policy Center and Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin Call for Fair Review

A massive $1 billion proposal for transmission lines that would run through Northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula should not be allowed to continue on a special, fast-tracked “out-of-cycle” approval process, according to the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin (CUB)

American Transmission Company’s (ATC) proposed “Northern Plan” transmission proposal is being reviewed on a rapidly accelerated schedule by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO), a regional organization that manages access to the electricity grid. MISO granted the faster, out-of-cycle review process because of WE Energies’ statements that it might shut down the Presque Isle coal plant in the Upper Peninsula, Marquette, Michigan. Recently, WE Energies and Wolverine Power Cooperative announced a joint venture to explore retrofitting the coal plant with modern pollution control equipment and continuing to run the plant.

“Consumers should not be asked to pay for $1 billion of new transmission lines running through Wisconsin’s Northwoods, without a full and fair review of alternatives that might save money and prevent the disruption of key habitats and natural areas,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

According to the groups, a more thorough, normal review process should include a consideration of the cost impacts of siting, as well as a detailed consideration of alternative transmission routes. The proposed high-voltage transmission lines would run through the Northwoods in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“Should we spend many years and consumer dollars to analyze the technical details of a plan that might not even happen because of the significant natural resources and other concerns it already raises,” asked Charlie Higley, Executive Director of Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin. “Should we build transmission lines through one state to primarily serve another state? These are questions MISO should ask – and answer – after careful review.”

Although the MISO review process is closed to the public, MISO agreed to allow ELPC and CUB to submit expert comments for its consideration.


The Environmental Law & Policy Center is the Midwest’s leading environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization. www.elpc.org

ELPC Urges Members of Congress to Support More Sustainable Forestry in Wisconsin’s Northwoods

ELPC Staff Attorney Katherine Dixon testified before members of the House Agriculture Committee at a public hearing in Appleton, WI on July 20.

In her testimony, Kathrine explained the unique importance of Wisconsin’s only National Forest and the aggressive logging practices that have threatened the forest’s health in recent years.  Katherine’s testimony outlined steps the US Forest Service can take to manage the forest in a way that balances recreation, natural resources values and logging.


Important Congressional Hearing on Wisconsin’s Northwoods – Take Action July 20!

Are you interested in making a big difference to protect Wisconsin’s Northwoods? On Monday, July 20th the House Agriculture Committee will be holding a public hearing in Appleton, WI to discuss forest resources in Northern Wisconsin. 

What: House Agriculture Committee Field Hearing on forest resource management in Northern Wisconsin

When: Monday, July 20th, 9:00am

Where: Radisson Paper Valley, 333 W. College Avenue, Appleton WI 54911

Details are also available on the House Agriculture Committee schedule.

This is an exciting and rare opportunity, and you can make sure conservationists have a seat at the table!

Here five easy ways you can help:

1. This hearing is open to the public, and anyone can attend.  Share this information with interested friends in the Appleton area. RSVP by email or phone to ahorn@elpc.org or 608.204.9735.

2. Do you have a blog or a mailing list? Inform other conservationists about this hearing!

3. Can’t attend? Show your support for preserving the CNNF by writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.  Contact ahorn@elpc.org if you would like guidance or a template letter that you can personalize and send.

4.  Send a letter to Congressman Kagen, thanking him for drawing attention to this important issue and urging him to protect important natural resource values in the Northwoods.  Personalizing your letter helps you make more of an impact.  

5.  Submit written testimony.  Anyone is free to submit written testimony to the following mailing address:

Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry
Committee on Agriculture
1301 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

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