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Huntersville State Forest spans nearly 34,000 acres, primarily in northeast Wadena County. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has submitted a proposal to purchase up to 2,000 additional acres to consolidate and link public land.

DNR eyes purchase of Wadena County forest land

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In northern Wadena County, the potatoes meet the pines.

Looking to curb the conversion from forest to irrigated agriculture, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is asking for $4,260,000 to acquire up to 2,000 acres of at-risk land around the nearly 34,000 acre Huntersville State Forest and five nearby wildlife management areas.

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In June, the DNR submitted the funding request to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Named, in part, for the late state Sen. Dallas Sams of Staples, the 12-member group of eight citizens and four lawmakers makes annual recommendations to the state legislature on how to spend a pool of money dedicated to restoring and protecting natural habitats. The Outdoor Heritage Fund is one of four created after voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, raising the state sales tax three-eighths of one percent from 2009 to 2034.

Although non-binding, final appropriations have yet to deviate from council recommendations. Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton used his line item veto to strip a couple of unendorsed projects the legislature included in the Legacy bill.

DNR representatives presented their plan for the Huntersville area forestlands to the Wadena County board in late June.

The timing is right, because Potlatch Corporation - owner of 1.42 million acres of forests in Minnesota, Arkansas and Idaho - has expressed interest in selling land within Huntersville State Forest, said Dick Peterson, DNR forest legacy coordinator.

"We want to be respectful of your tax base," Peterson told commissioners. "At the same time, this is a great opportunity. It's not that often you have a big land owner selling a lot of land ... Those lands will be open to the public and benefit not only the county residents but statewide for years and years to come. It's not just recreational use; these are good productive timber lands."

Commissioner Ron Noon said he was interesting in working with the DNR, but the board should proceed cautiously when it comes to turning tax-generating private land into permanent public property.

"That's a consideration we have whenever we look at an acquisition," Peterson responded, adding that the DNR would return to the county board to discuss specific parcels once the funding picture becomes clearer.

This year, the legislature appropriated $1,050,000 - about a quarter of the DNR's request - for the first phase of the project, dubbed "Protecting Pinelands Sands Forest and Aquatic Habitat."

That money, Peterson said, will be spent mostly in Hubbard County, around Badoura State Forest.

The Huntersville area land acquisition, which would begin next July if approved next legislative session, represents the second phase.

"We're not optimistic we will get all of the money we requested," Peterson said. "We're hoping that we'll see some of that funding."

The DNR's main goals are to secure property that would block access to other state land, increase recreational opportunities and reduce fragmentation of large blocks of forest land, said Mark Carlstrom, the agency's forestry supervisor for the Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids regions.

"We'd like to keep the forests in forest condition," he said.

Since 2006, Potlatch has sold more than 7,500 acres in the area and "many of the region's parcels have been sold to agricultural interests for conversion to irrigated agriculture," according to the DNR application.

Some of the land that's been converted to potato production has been mischaracterized as "deforesting" of "native" forest land, said Keith McGovern, CEO of Fargo-based RDO, the nation's largest potato producer.

"The land has always been cropland," he said. "It just happened to be in a crop of trees owned by the Potlatch company. It's actually ag land. We're just farming it in a different way."

McGovern said there is "some competition between us and the state of Minnesota to be the purchaser of that land," though RDO isn't buying property by rivers or lakes, or land with rocks, sloughs or heavy soils.

Mike Houser, Potlatch's environmental and public policy manager, said "there are certain parcels that just make sense for the DNR to own."

"The DNR has been a great customer, but we're a business, so we need to get market value ...," Houser said. "This is an ongoing thing. Some deals work out, some don't."

Ag Week reporter Mikkel Pates contributed to this report.

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