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Board: Increase county forest leases, don't terminate them

A July 2 storm in northern Hubbard County necessitated a salvage timber auction Aug. 14. More could be scheduled in the future. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hunting leases on Hubbard County land came under scrutiny Wednesday when commissioners said they were inundated over the weekend by angry calls from deer campers.

Those calls were apparently prompted by a forest committee member advising lessees the county would be terminating those leases.

No such thing will happen and commissioners suggested to Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier that the county should offer even more leases to the public.

Currently 51 leases are maintained by the county, 10-year leases that are renewable. Most families have passed them down through the generations and meet annually at hunting camps dispersed through the woods. The camps are not supposed to be used for year-round habitation.

Lohmeier, at the direction of county commissioners, formed a committee more than a year ago to plan a long-term strategy for cutting the county's forests and planting anew.

Somehow, the committee delved into the issue of the leases, which were part of the county's old 10-year forest plan.

Lohmeier said those leases belong to an "elite few that tend to be pre-emptive in the use of public lands."

The use of those lands by large hunting parties to the exclusion of others has been a sore spot within Lohmeier's office, he acknowledged.

"We get a lot of requests for more leases," Lohmeier said, urging a "sunset clause" for the 51 leases that would lead to their "eventual termination."

He said, "Townships don't want to see more leases on forfeited lands."

Large hunting parties that come annually are erecting permanent deer stands and they take up a lot of land when they fan out to hunt, he noted.

Board chair Dick Devine, who said he thought he got called over the weekend by each of the 51 leaseholders, was not happy.

"The land belongs to the people," he chided. "We should give them more cabins."

He said the county should "encourage and help people use it. It's not taking away from the people to have it."

Who is a permanent deer stand going to hurt, he wondered aloud. Many older hunters can't use portable stands, so relatives have erected stairways up to a more permanent structure to enable those seniors to hunt.

That led to complaints the commissioners have heard about nails in trees, gating off public lands, building new roads to hunting and logging areas and the elite treatment of the 51.

The county owns 140,000 acres of lands that could be publicly leased to hunters, Devine and commissioner Lyle Robinson noted.

"We should do everything we should to encourage people to use that land," Devine reiterated.

Commissioner Kathy Grell suggested removing the timber leases from the timber policy overall.

Devine said he has problems with an advisory board dictating policy to the public. It should be a board issue, he said, because the board, not the timber advisory committee, is accountable to the public.

Commissioner Cal Johannsen, who said he has "95 percent of the leases in my district," agreed.

"Having a hearing on the forest management plan isn't gonna fly," he said. "Let the board work on that portion of it."

Robinson said the proprietary nature of the 51 leases has spawned a legion of RVs that come up and park in the woods during deer hunting season, bringing large parties of hunters with them.

The county doesn't know who is there and doesn't get revenue from their use of the lands, he said.

Devine, who repeatedly admitted he doesn't hunt, said he doesn't understand the camaraderie of setting up deer camps annually and how much it means to families.

But he said there was enough land to go around, and urged more leases for even wider public use.

In other business, the board:

n Reviewed a salvage timber auction of the July 2 blowdown in Fern and Rockwood townships.

Seventeen of 18 tracts were auctioned off this week, Lohmeier said, for a total of $239,227.55 in revenues. Because there was widespread damage to woods in northern townships, another auction will likely be held in September.

Robinson worried "we've created a management practice" of building up piles of broken trees throughout the county, possibly causing as much of a fire hazard as the downed trees.

"It's putting us farther behind our plan to get rid of 80-year-old wood," he added.

Only two logging contractors have grinders, Lohmeier said, and the county doesn't have a policy of when that wood must be ground after clearing.

Grell suggested those contractors may be getting enriched doubly, because there is a federal rebate per cord for chipping wood.

The county is well ahead of its scheduled removal of older stands of aspen, Lohmeier said.

The piled wood "has great potential for biomass," Lohmeier said.

He said the July storm left small patches of destruction throughout the northern part of the county not conducive to large- scale logging. "I'm hoping they can take as much storm damaged (trees) as they can and not just the gravy of the standing trees," he said.

"It's an ongoing process," he said. State law mandates timber auctions and appraisals of larger tracts of wood, so the county must deal with the blowdown damage methodically.

Lohmeier's wife Mari Jo Lohmeier, was just hired as the new county 4-H director. She replaces Mark Haugen.

n Heard a clarification from Public Health Director RaeAnn Mayer that St. Joseph's Area Health Services wants to remain the county's public health provider.

Social Services Director Daryl Bessler said he'd heard some uncertainty after hospital financial officer Jay Ross visited the board two weeks ago to request additional funding.

"I want to clarify that St. Joe's will continue to provide public health services," Mayer said. "It was an open-ended request."

Ross said the hospital has incurred losses from $150,000 to $300,000 annually to administer the program.

"The state keeps cutting back funding and we're left holding the bag," Devine said.

The hospital has pulled out of the home care market, Bessler said, but other providers are filling the void.

n Heard a request from the Hubbard County Historical Museum for more funding and building repairs.

Director Connie Henderson said increased utility costs and deteriorating carpet in the museum necessitate the request. The county is in the midst of a renovation above the jail, where the Social Services Department will move at yearend, and commissioners theorized a large purchase of carpeting may suffice to cover museum floors also.

The museum also asked for some help from the county maintenance staff, which will be presented to that department for consideration.

n Approved having Devine review change orders for the office renovation project, if they should arise, and approve any under $5,000.

But the board had a spirited debate about whether any change orders should even be tolerated on the $1 million project. Of that cost $600,000 is for the interior renovations.

"It's pure profit," Robinson said of change orders.

Commissioners said with a construction manager on the project and well-drafted bid projects, there should be no reason for change orders since all the contractors knew what they were bidding.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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