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Counties start to rebel -- Conservation land turns controversial

It used to be a cakewalk for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources or U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to get county board permission to buy up tracts of land for conservation purposes.

Not anymore.

In Mahnomen County, the Fish & Wildlife Service had to appeal to a state board after the Mahnomen County Board rejected a plan to turn 76 acres of private land into wetlands.

And Becker County may be headed in the same direction.

On Tuesday, Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson, a farmer in the Cormorant area, put the DNR on notice that he would no longer support transferring large tracts of productive farmland to state or federal agencies for conservation purposes.

It's harmful to the local economy to take too much farmland out of production, he said.

In the Mahnomen County case, a state board approved giving the federal government the right to turn 76 acres in Mahnomen County into wetlands, even though county board members turned down the idea.

The state Land Exchange Board voted 2-1 Thursday to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service an easement on the property owned by Matt Lahn and Kurt Albright.

Mahnomen County commissioners had voted against the plan, fearing the county would lose property taxes, according to Detroit Lakes Newspapers' St. Paul correspondent, Don Davis.

However, Lahn and Albright told the land board -- made up of Gov. Mark Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto -- that they would continue to pay property taxes at current levels.

"Our main thing is to protect the wetlands," Lahn said.

Two Mahnomen County commissioners told board members they would like a letter from landowners promising not to request property tax cuts in the future. But Swanson and Otto were ready to approve the easement immediately.

Dayton said he was disappointed that county officials, landowners and the federal agency did not get together to agree on the letter, something he said could have taken 10 minutes.

It is rare that such a dispute rises to the level of the land board. In the past such easements, which the board must approve, have been routine matters.

In Becker County, the county board agreed to allow the DNR to acquire an irregular-shaped piece of farmland in Cuba Township north of Lake Park.

The DNR purchase will increase by about a third the size of the existing Cuba Wetlands Management Area.

At the meeting Tuesday, Nelson talked at length with DNR Natural Resources Specialist Tom Kucera about state and federal agencies sometimes being "bad neighbors" by negatively impacting farmland near their conservation lands.

Nelson said he has always been able to work well with Kucera, but has found other government officials to be arbitrary and unwilling to make common-sense compromises.

Farmers get different answers and are required to pay for different drainage projects depending on who is in charge at the time, Nelson said.

Productive farmland creates a positive ripple effect in the local economy that is not duplicated by conservation land, Nelson said, even though some local units of government are compensated for lost tax revenue through the Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program.

He agreed to support the Cuba Township request, since the land is a good fit for the DNR for several reasons, but told Kucera (and DNR Area Wildlife Manager Blane Klemek, who was also at the meeting) he will no longer support the transfer of large tracts of productive farmland into conservation easements.

Commissioner Gerry Schram also questioned the lack of noxious weed control on DNR land and told Kucera the DNR should concentrate on taking better care of the land it controls before looking to expand its conservation holdings.

In the end, the board agreed to let the DNR purchase the 32-acre tract from Jerry M. Olson. It has been for sale for a while and has had no takers, Nelson noted, which is one of the reasons he agreed to support it.

It is also partially "landlocked" between two roads and the existing DNR land.

From a local government property tax standpoint, it's a good deal.

Becker County Board Chairman Larry Knutson pointed out that nearly $21 an acre in PILT payments will be received for the land, even though it now generates less than $2 an acre in property taxes.

The DNR plans to restore and excavate several small wetland basins there for additional waterfowl breeding habitat, with the rest of the land to be converted to native prairie to provide nesting cover for waterfowl and other upland nesting birds.

Once established, periodic prescribed burns will be done to enhance the nesting cover, and weed control efforts will be conducted "as needed."