A recent announcement from the Conservation Fund, excited about plans to purchase 72,000 acres of Potlatch land in Minnesota was not warmly welcomed by Wadena County Commissioners, who heard that about 4,900 of those acres were in their county.
The Conservation Fund plans to finalize a $48 million purchase later this year, plans to pay taxes on the property, and the property will continue to be logged by Potlatch. The property is expected to eventually be gifted back as public land, while still being managed as a working forest. The concern is that state land does not derive property taxes for an already poor county.
During the Tuesday, July 14 commission meeting, board members unanimously approved a resolution which opposed the addition of any more DNR land in Wadena County unless there was an acre-for-acre return to privately held, taxable property, which would happen concurrently. This was similar language used in 2015 to ensure that the county would have no net loss of taxable property. Commissioner Bill Stearns pressed for added emphasis on the "DNR" in the resolution.
This issue stems from a "gentleman's agreement" between the county and the DNR, where the Minnesota DNR, according to Wadena County Planning and zoning administrator Deana Malone, said they would work to “balance the scales” following a 2,006 acre purchase of Potlatch land in 2015. The understanding was that the DNR would begin selling some public land back to private owners, acre-for-acre, so to speak. Those private homeowners would begin paying taxes on the property. The DNR, in the fall of 2018, sold about 240 acres. Another land sale in 2019 brought another 120 acres back in private ownership. But 360 acres in five years is not fast enough, according to county officials.
"We want to say 'hey you are the bad guys," Stearns said concerning the Minnesota DNR. "We need to name them specifically."
Commissioner Jon Kangas echoed that the DNR not returning the acres quickly has been a sore spot between the two groups. He also noted that this resolution was just a statement by the board and not legislation.
In a July 7 board meeting, Wadena County Planning and Zoning administrator Deana Malone shared what she knew of the Conservation Fund's plans. She expressed caution and concern over any additional acreage that could turn over to state control. She was told by Wadena County Assessor Lee Brekke that of the counties acreage, about 23,325 acres are already under some form of state control, such as School Land Trust, state forests or wildlife management areas. That’s about 7% of the county’s total acreage. Theoretically, if the 4,900 acres were to be bought by the Conservation Fund, then later gifted to the state, and if the county still had all of their current acres, it would bring the total of state controlled property in the county to 8%.
The 72,000 acres in question is being called "Minnesota's Heritage Forest" by the Conservation Fund.
“The Minnesota’s Heritage Forest acquisition will be one of the largest land conservation efforts in Minnesota in recent history. Our goal is to ensure the 72,000 acres remain forested and sustainably managed as working timberlands,” said Larry Selzer, President and CEO of The Conservation Fund in a news release. “Our purchase and the ultimate protection of the PotlatchDeltic land will support northern Minnesota’s long tradition of timber production and outdoor recreation by preserving working forestlands and safeguarding jobs, while also protecting water quality and wildlife habitat, helping mitigate climate change, and contributing to local economies.”
Potentially those acres are open for public use, including recreation, hunting and fishing, and have the potential for tourism dollars, Malone said.
While there is payment in lieu of taxes for state owned land, Malone said that’s not equivalent to property tax dollars.
“Now they are looking at another 7.5 square miles,” Malone said in dismay. “That is a lot of land off the tax rolls.” Malone posed the question, “where does it stop?”
Commissioner Jon Kangas agreed saying that the state owned enough land in the county.
“I stand opposed to it,” Kangas said. “I like the idea of conservation, but I would stand opposed to creating this much land off the tax rolls.”
Commission chair Chuck Horsager agreed with a resolution of opposition mainly because the DNR had not followed through with their “gentlemen’s agreement” to return property to private ownership.
Malone felt that no more land should be taken off the tax rolls in a county with one of the highest property tax rates and highest poverty levels. The resolution also expresses that Wadena County still maintains more than 80% of its original wetlands, which are already protected from development under the Wetland Conservation Act.
“Nothing (no more state land) at all would be fine with me, but that’s my personal opinion,” Malone voiced to the board.
Aside from the most recent resolution, the correspondence between the county and the Conservation Fund so far has only been a letter from the Conservation Fund expressing the excitement about this potential land purchase.