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Should Minnesotans be hunting for land?

Published (3/4/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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From the pine forest to the prairie and from the boundary waters to bluff country, hunters, farmers and government officials are caught in a triangle over proposed land use legislation.

The debate escalated following the release of a 2010 legislative auditor’s report about how much public land requires managing by the Department of Natural Resources.

“At the same time the DNR was acquiring land, they were kind of adding to the inventory of problems because they couldn’t keep up with maintaining the land that they already owned,” said John Yunker, an evaluation manager for the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Then, another report by the DNR titled “Long-Range Budget Analysis of Land Management Needs” projected annual $10 million shortfalls for land management costs.

“It seems like the allocation towards management is not what’s needed in order to manage things properly,” Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) said. “But at the same time, the acquisition dollars seem to be inflated beyond what we can afford.”

Drazkowski sponsors HF332 that would prohibit the state from acquiring additional land unless an equal amount of state-owned land is declared surplus and sold, with the proceeds deposited into the General Fund.

The bill has bipartisan support in the Legislature and with some local governments, but is described as an “anti-hunting” bill by outdoors groups, such as the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance.

“We don’t think that that’s a good policy,” said Lance Ness, alliance president.

Hunting is allowed in state forests and wildlife management areas, managed by the DNR. It is a $552 million annual business that employs 11,911 Minnesotans. That explains why the fur is flying over the possibility of no-net-gain in public land. For every dollar invested in public land, there is a $4 return on investment, Ness said.

But when private land converts to public, it may result in fewer agricultural acres or reduced property taxes for counties, cities and school districts. The issue has pitted local government and farmers against environmentalists and hunters.

Farmers and counties speak out

Most public hunting land is in the northern part of the state. Future acquisitions have turned to acquiring more land near the Twin Cities metropolitan area and in southern Minnesota.

Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said farmers are frustrated by the amount of public land needing upkeep, such as controlling thistle that can expand to adjacent cropland. They also compete with the DNR and other interested buyers when land is sold.

“Minnesota Farmers Union urges the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies to continue to explore the working lands concept that works with farmers to acquire easements and reward farmers for adding wildlife and conservation benefits to their farm, and not always have to be about buying land and taking it out of production,” Peterson said.

Taking land off the tax rolls has significant effects on local governments too, especially in counties where a majority of the land is held in public ownership. In Lake County for example, 84 percent of 1.3 million acres is publicly owned, according to County Commissioner Rich Sve.

“We’re a forested county. It is the opinion of the Lake County Board of Commissioners that we’re at the maximum percentage of public lands,” Sve said.

Koochiching County is the state’s second largest geographically, but has a population of only 13,500 to support the infrastructure, such as roads and public services, according to Wade Pavleck, county board chairman. More than 80 percent is wetland.

Though the state does not pay property taxes, it does give counties a payment in lieu of taxes, known as a PILT payment.

The Minnesota Association of Townships also supports Drazkowski’s “no-net-gain” bill. Township representatives said they don’t always receive PILT payments from counties.

“The more land is removed from local tax rolls, the greater the impact on the remaining property owners,” the association said in a written statement.

“I think we need to realize this is a tough balance,” said Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.

The state’s ability to buy more land was helped along with passage of the 2008 constitutional amendment that provided dedicated funds for 25 years. The funds must be used to supplement traditional funding to “restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests and habitat for fish, game and wildlife.”

McNamara has a plan to address the concerns of those who think the state already owns more public land than it can manage. He amended HF471, the outdoor heritage appropriations bill he sponsors, to include setting aside $5.6 million of the fund for an outdoor heritage land restoration and enhancement account. The State Board of Investment would invest the funds and the interest could be used to pay for ongoing maintenance of land purchased with outdoor heritage money. Counties, cities and townships would also be reimbursed for lost taxes. The bill awaits action by the House Legacy Funding Division.

“This addresses many of the concerns that folks have that the state is on a path to buy land it can’t afford to buy,” McNamara said.

Many hunting associations receive appropriations from the Legacy funds and oppose HF332, which was held over by the environment committee. Instead, they support a bill that would prohibit a net loss of public hunting land.

No net loss

Sponsored by Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder), HF498 would require the DNR to find a replacement for any hunting land that is sold or closed to hunting. The bill has the support of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance and Sportsmen for Change, among others.

Also held over by the environment committee, it would require the DNR to inventory public lands and determine the number of acres available for hunting as of July 1, 2011, so that there could be no net loss of additional hunting land after that date.

How much land is enough to satisfy 700,000 hunter’s appetites for small and large game? For some, it’s not just a matter of how much, but rather where those lands are located.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) said there are many parents in the urban areas who would like to teach their children to hunt but don’t have the time or resources to drive for hours.

Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake), an avid hunter who represents northern Minnesota with vast amounts of public land, supports both bills.

“Getting more public land is a problem for us because it takes away from economic opportunity,” Dill said. But he also supports “the opportunity to buy land where it’s needed,” such as where there are critical shortages of native prairie grass or waterfowl habitat.

He sponsored the bill last year that included purchasing thousands of acres for Lake Vermilion State Park.

“Even with no net gain in the back of my mind, we still are acquiring some critical parts in that area. But we’ve got to find a balance and direct the resources to where we need them.”

Does that include buying farmland? “That’s a very sticky point,” Dill said.

About a decade ago, the DNR bought tax-forfeited farmland in Koochiching County for a bird sanctuary, to the dismay of county officials.

“They didn’t work with us and it took that valuable piece of tax base off the tax rolls,” Pavleck said. “The one thing that’s been missing, in my opinion, is full engagement of the counties as a partner when it comes to land issues. It’s the most important thing we deal with, especially in a county like mine.”

Dill said counties should be allowed to make the final decision about whether private land converts to public use.

“I would certainly want the county board to know and have a check-off, in fact approval, that land be acquired,” he said.

Currently, if a county objects to a sale, there is a state appeals process that can reverse a county’s decision.

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