Hubbard County accepts 2 land donations
Trust For Public Lands has Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council funding available to purchase 600 acres of former Potlatch land north of Emmaville. The second acquisition involves the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District and Northern Waters Land Trust buying parcels in Hendrickson, Akeley township, then donating to the county.
The Hubbard County Board wrangled with the notion of conservation groups donating property to the county for public use.
County Land Commissioner Mark “Chip” Lohmeier informed the board of two possible acquisitions at their Tuesday, Jan. 4 meeting.
County commissioners reluctantly approved both, acknowledging they have no control over to whom private individuals sell their property.
First, Lohmeier explained that the Trust For Public Lands (TPL) has Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) funding available to purchase 600 acres of former Potlatch land.
Located north of Emmaville, along County 4, Lohmeier said the parcels “tie in with existing tax-forfeited lands nicely. It also provides a connection for the snowmobile trail, which is also the proposed route of the Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail between Emmaville and Itasca State Park.”
TPL is a national, nonprofit land conservation organization that “conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come.”
TPL would purchase the acreage from The Conservation Fund (TCF) and, in turn, donate it to Hubbard County.
Lohmeier said LSOHC prohibits use of its funding to purchase land that will be developed into recreational trails. Thus, the western-most 40 acres, where the proposed Itasca-Heartland Connection Trai will pass, will need to be purchased via other means.
10,000 acres of Potlatch land
In November 2020, PotlatchDeltic Corporation sold approximately 72,400 acres in Minnesota – 10,310 of them in Hubbard County – to TCF.
TCF is a nonprofit organization that has worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than eight million acres of land, including more than 311,000 acres in Minnesota. It is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
TCF’s stated goals are that the land remains as working forest, conservation land or public recreational land.
TCF offered to work with Hubbard County over the next decade, if the county wishes to acquire some of the property.
On Tuesday, Lohmeier reminded the county board that there are 10,310 acres involved. “You’re going to see this over and over and over again.”
The county is pursuing a special bill in the Minnesota Legislature so it can use proceeds from tax-forfeited land sales to purchase former Potlatch acreage.
No net-loss policy
Concerned about the loss of property tax revenue for the county, township and school district when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or a conservation land trust purchases private property and converts it to public land, Hubbard County passed a no net-loss policy in 2020.
Lohmeier pointed out that these newly acquired county lands will not qualify for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), but the county will earn revenue from any future timber harvests.
“Those lands will also become available for public recreation,” he said.
County ownership of this complex “consolidates public ownership, preserves large blocks of working forests and enhances wildlife habitat by providing contiguous forests and connectivity to other public forestlands,” he continued.
Public vs. private
County commissioner Char Christenson asked what would happen if the county did not accept TPL’s offer.
Lohmeier said this 600-acre block would likely be sold to the DNR, as TCF’s goal is to preserve the land for public forests “rather than have them split up into private ownership. They see the value in having working forests rather than private forests, which typically don’t get managed.”
If the DNR gets the land, Lohmeier said the county would receive a PILT payment of three-quarters of 1 percent of the appraised value – approximately $13.88 per acre, using county assessed value, or $5.133 per acre, whichever is greater.
Christenson expressed concern about private owners being “pushed out” by conservation groups.
Lohmeier replied that both the DNR and county have rejected other TCF parcels because they were isolated and didn’t adjoin existing public lands. “There are parcels that are going to be sold to private ownership,” he said.
Christenson asked if the county could sell some of its less desirable tax-forfeited land to private landowners in order to counterbalance this acquisition.
County commissioner Tom Krueger asked Lohmeier to start identifying county parcels that could be sold.
“We don’t need all of this land,” Christenson added.
County commissioner David De La Hunt said if the trend of private land converting to public continues, it slowly erodes tax capacity. He admitted that government, rightly so, has zero control over who sells property to whom.
De La Hunt said he isn’t opposed to environmental benefits. “It makes sense to protect watersheds and things like that, but there’s a balancing act,” he said.
Lohmeier said the county holds 138,000 acres of tax-forfeited land. He noted there are parcels that are land-locked or lack public access. These could be put up for sale.
Tourism and conservation
County administrator Jeff Cadwell said it makes sense for the county to own these 600 acres for local control. That eliminates “the headache of the DNR managing it,” he said. “That’s probably the most compelling reason.”
With no lakes, roads, or services, Cadwell said the first and best use of this land is for recreation and timber management.
Public land “serves a major economic factor in Hubbard County, which is tourism. If all of these 40s were split up into 20s and sold off privately, that would change the nature of Hubbard County,” he said.
The TCF parcels are not developable, marketable properties, he continued.
“I think it would be helpful to see the big picture,” Cadwell said. “Over the last five years, on average, we’ve had a 5% increase in our tax capacity. A quarter of that is from new construction, which is improvements or new buildings. Three-quarters of that is coming from value adjustments because the market is just growing. All of those things require a tension and balance between development and conservation. Hubbard County is relatively unique in this situation, where we have that tension.”
But, Cadwell said, there is general agreement that the county can sell its parcels with a high development value and low conservation value.
Lohmeier anticipates higher revenues from timber harvesting on this former Potlatch land.
Across all of the county’s tax-forfeited land, the average earning was $11-12 per acre in 2021 for forestry management, “which was comparable to what Potlatch was paying in property taxes,” he said.
These acres are predominantly covered in Norway pine, Lohmeier said, which allows for multiple, intermediate timber cuttings over the course of 60 years.
Hendrickson, Akeley townships
The second acquisition involves the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and Northern Waters Land Trust.
The Crow Wing SWCD is applying to the LSOHC for funding to purchase two parcels of TCF lands, then donate them to Hubbard County. One is a 72-acre parcel in Hendrickson Township, adjacent to the Kabekona River, a state-designated trout stream. The other is a 238-acre parcel in Akeley Township, adjacent to the Shingobee River.
Lohmeier said the protection of this land contributes to helping achieve the 75% land protection goal in the Leech Lake River One Watershed, One Plan.
Again, the county will not receive PILT, but would garner timber revenues.