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County board approves DNR's land acquisition

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Forestry has grant money to purchase 280 acres within the Paul Bunyan State Forest and 250 acres adjoining the Badoura State Forest.

Mike Lichter, assistant DNR forestry supervisor in Park Rapids, met with the Hubbard County Board Wednesday to discuss the DNR's interest in these and other parcels available from Potlatch.

"Potlatch is divesting of its land readily," Lichter said. DNR Forestry's interest in those parcels is "limited and very selective."

"We're not looking to acquire land. We're very picky about what should be state forest," he said. "Typically, the parcels are very integrated with state land. They fit right in."

Forty-acre and 240-acre parcels sitting within the Paul Bunyan State Forest are available from Potlatch now. They are two of the eight private blocks of land within that forest. They have no value because there is no legal access, Lichter noted, adding they were harvested almost 40 years ago so they are ready for management. Both parcels have very productive aspen timber approaching merchantable age.

"Are we going to end up with PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) on those then or what?" asked Vice Chair Cal Johannsen.

"Yes, which would be three-quarters of one percent of the land value," Lichter said. "I want to point out that in these parcels, they're not extraordinary values. They are very ordinary values, so that impact probably wouldn't play out any more."

"Steamboat River Township has very little tax base," Johannsen said.

The 350-acre Potlatch tract in Badoura Township is productive timber land adjoining state forest land. It is on the edge of farmland with center pivots.

"That meets our goals of good water quality. We think it's just a great opportunity to catch the last piece on the corner and make it state forest land. It borders trust land to the north. It's been reforested already by Potlatch," Lichter said.

He presented a larger scale map of Hubbard County with Potlatch land marked in red.

"We don't have interest in scattered parcels. They don't quite protect the land like we want to have in block ownership and they're harder and more expensive for us to manage," Lichter explained. "But we do have a few places where we have interest. We could probably get grant money in the near future."

One parcel borders Badoura State Forest on the north. The other larger one, approximately 2,500 acres, is the sheep ranch north of Emmaville.

"Potlatch still owns it. It's a lease," Lichter said. "We're not trying to imperialize and grab that, but it would be a big chunk of land that would be managed for the forest industry locally here. It would fit well into Clay Township's desires with development. Now is the time to talk about it. If we were to pursue money for either of these parcels, I would want your nod of agreement."

By statute, DNR Forestry does not need board resolution of approval "but we're not going to proceed without your agreement," Lichter said. If you're in disagreement with our mission, we don't want to get into that argument."

"I don't see much advantage for the DNR owning that sheep ranch," Johannsen said. "I'm pretty familiar with the property. I don't see the advantage other than the state owning more land to manage the timber. I put up hay in there. It's not conducive to much other than hunting."

"Yes, it's hunting land, recreational land and it's timber management land. There is concern from the industry that in private ownership, the access to managing it typically is reduced greatly," Lichter said, whereas the DNR would manage it in ways understood by the timber industry.

"Potlatch will probably never be able to sell it anybody as one piece of property," Johannsen speculated, due to land prices.

The DNR might be interested in another Potlatch parcel north of Emmaville, particularly if the Heartland Trail extends from Park Rapids to Itasca State Park.

"It's also good forest land on sand country," Lichter said.

The DNR's funding sources are a combination the Nature Conservancy, Outdoor Heritage Fund, grants and conservation partners like the National Turkey Federation.

"Are lease holders given the first opportunity for refusal?" asked Commissioner Ed Smith.

"In many cases. Of course, Potlatch is in the timber business. They kind of like selling us land because they're still going to get the timber access," Lichter said.

The board, by consensus, approved of the purchases for the Paul Bunyan and Badoura State Forests.

Johannsen said his biggest concern is PILT.

"It seems stable now. There was a time when PILT was on the chopping block. We've got a lot of tax-forfeited and state-owned property in Hubbard County right now. If PILT goes away some day, it's going to affect the rest of the residents. The taxpayers are going to be paying the bill. I know people say we need places for people to hunt, but they're coming from the Metro area," he said.

"When it draws people, they are spending money," said Commissioner Char Christenson.

Johannsen disagreed, saying hunters only buy licenses and gas. "People don't always spend money," he said.