It was down to standing room only at the public land auction Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Wadena County Courthouse.
About 50 folks in work boots, tennis shoes, camouflage, and even a Hawaiian flowery shirt showed up to bid on seven parcels including one half acre lake lot on Big Pine Lake and six 40 acre landlocked properties in Lyons State Forest and Huntersville State Forest.
Results from the auction started off exciting as a bidding war of sorts went on among three bidders looking to buy the lake lot. With a starting bid of $25,000, bidders quickly surpassed $100,000 and finally reached $117,000 for the property, which had a restrictive wetland covenant in place.
But numbers dropped in half after the sale of the lake lot The remaining parcels were sold or not sold as follows:
- Lyons State Forest (39.5 acres). Minimum bid: $30,000. Sold for $31,000.
- Lyons State Forest (40 acres). Minimum bid: $30,000. No bid received.
- Lyons State Forest (40 acres). Minimum bid: $30,000. No bid received.
- Lyons State Forest (40 acres). Minimum bid: $14,000. Sold for $14,000.
- Lyons State Forest (40 acres). Minimum bid: $30,000. Sold for $48,000.
- Huntersville State Forest (40 acres). Minimum bid: $14,000. No bid received.
For those lots that did not sell, buyers can still make a purchase over-the-counter with the Minnesota DNR, as long as they last. Public auction details, parcel information and the latest updates are posted online at mndnr.gov/landsale or you can email email@example.com or call 888-646-6367.
Public land sale background
The sale of public land managed by the Minnesota DNR is one that occasionally pops up among conversations at Wadena County Commission meetings. The sales are in part in response to what Wadena County Planning and Zoning administrator Deana Malone calls a "gentleman's agreement" between the county and the DNR.
The conversation started back in 2014 when Potlatch was selling property in Wadena County that was useful to the Minnesota DNR for the system of land and trails near Huntersville and Lyons State Forests. It was also an effort to curb the conversion from forest to irrigated agriculture. At the time the DNR was asking for $4,260,000 from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council 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. The DNR eventually acquired 2,006 acres, effectively removing that property from the county tax roles, but making it available for public use and enjoyment.
County lands acquired by the DNR still receive payment from the state in the form of Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). How the amounts are calculated is written into state statutes, according to Cheryl Kelley-Dobie Regional Operations Supervisor for the Minnesota DNR in the Northwest region, including Wadena County.
At the time, Malone said it was agreed that the DNR would look at what they had in their holdings and they would return to the county what they had taken out of the county.
"Kind of an acre-for-acre thing," Malone said. "And that didn't happen right away. They told us it would take about two years to go through everything and get stuff setup. Well that didn't happen."
The county sent letters requesting action. One 40 acre parcel was sold in 2017.
"We spent tons of staff time looking at DNR parcels especially in Lyons Township, where they were going to lose a considerable number of acres," Malone said. "It's not a wealthy township to start with."
The county found 1,320 acres of land that was not adjacent to large state forests but had access and would be attractive for building on and hunting. Those acres were spread throughout the county.
"We sent those off to the state in 2017 and didn't hear anything back," Malone said.
Kelley-Dobie said it's not as quick a process as everyone would like, but that they are actively working on selling properties that don't meet the needs of public use or of DNR needs. That might mean the property does not have a major timber value, it might be hard to access or maybe it's not useful to the public. But each property goes through a process Kelley-Dobie called a Strategic Land Access Management (SLAM). Boots on the ground land managers review the acreage and determine which properties make sense to sell.
Some properties take more time as the history of how the lands were acquired has to be undone, as Kelley-Dobie said, "you have to unwind the web." Trust lands are more difficult or those acquired by the federal government. She said it's not as if the DNR can just put all the parcels in a hat, pull out 2,000 acres and move on.
"We have lots of parcels we'd like to release, but it takes a bit longer," Kelley-Dobie said. "This selling of lands is relatively new to the DNR. It's not like selling a house."
With committee meetings, public notices, appraisals and in some cases legislative action necessary to free up a property for auction, there's a year's worth of work over a handful of parcels. The DNR manages 5.6 million acres in Minnesota, many of which they are actively reviewing.
Kelley-Dobie adds that in the end, Wadena County likely won't see an exact return of 2,006 acres. What the county will see is a return that's equal in value, which could be fewer acres. Kelley-Dobie expressed that this process is about making best use of land. She points out the importance of having land available for public use. Coming upon deer hunting season, those lands will see the most traffic they see all year, in a week's time. For every property like this they sell, they receive calls from folks that have grown used to having access to the public land. She mentioned the tourism and recreation dollars as well as societal benefits having access to public land offers a community.
In 2018 the county made another attempt at getting information to the DNR, trying to assist them in taking action. They also reached out to area state representatives like Sen. Paul Gazelka, Reps. John Poston and Steve Green and DNR Commissioner at the time Tom Landwehr. Things moved more, with the total acreage sold coming to 240 ares.
In the most recent land sale, Wednesday, another 240 acres were up for sale, but those properties were less than desirable according to Malone, Dist. 2B Rep. Steve Green and Dist. 9A Rep. John Poston.
"This sale of mainly useless land may be a sad attempt for the DNR to comply with conditions imposed upon it when the agency purchased 2,000 acres in Wadena County a number of years ago.," Green said.
Green went on to say the DNR trying to sell the property with no legal access was an insult to taxpayers.
MN DNR Realty Program coordinator Amy Schwarz said the landlocked property may be difficult to sell because of the access, but those are properties that are also difficult to manage, as the DNR can't easily access it and the public may also have difficulty accessing it for use as is. That makes these properties a higher priority to sell.
As difficult as it may be to figure out how to gain access whether through an easement or property owner agreements, there was still interest in those lots. Three of the six sold at auction and others in attendance mulled over options of buying the properties over the counter. As of Wednesday, the total acreage set to go back on tax roles was 120 acres, bringing the total to 360 acres returned.
That's a successful sale, according to Kelley-Dobie. She said there was interest in the properties that did not sell and it may be that a forester determines those minimum prices could be lowered further for over the counter sales.
Rep. Poston felt for the county and said the DNR needs to work harder to return these acres as Wadena County needs all the help they can get in trying to increase revenues, hopefully lowering property taxes for the whole.
"Property taxes are probably more important in Wadena County than anywhere else in the state," Poston said. He said an error early on was the county and the DNR not putting something in writing to nail down how fast this process should take.
"There should have been a contractual agreement," Poston said. "But that isn't in place, so its kind of hard to fightback so to speak."
Kelley-Dobie said they're already getting their list of properties together for the next public auction planned for next fall, which she said will include some attractive trust lands with public access. She suspects it will be another successful auction.
Entering into deer hunting season, Nov. 9-17 in this region, hunters should be aware of possible changes to the properties they may have used in the past. Do to the lack of access to these most recent sales, it's not likely these sites saw much use from hunters outside the immediate area, but staying in tune with all recent changes could help you avoid a frustrating situation.