Minnesota state director of The Conservation Fund Kim Berns-Melhus and Minnesota state representative Emilee Nelson shared information on the Minnesota Heritage Forest project on Dec. 8, which includes 3,520 acres in Wadena County. The Conservation Fund will own the land for up to 10 years and plans to work with county, state and tribal governments to sell the land while maintaining the working forest status. The working forest would continue timber jobs and be open to the public.
Commissioners and one property owner shared their questions about the public use of the land and if the county would see a benefit from the project.
Berns-Melhus said the project is a “launchpad” for conserving working forests with conservation and economic benefits. Over the next 10 years, working forests across the country are expected to decrease, according to Berns-Melhus. The project land, a total of 72,440 acres, was purchased from PotlatchDeltic Corporation for $48 million on Nov. 18 with a green bond.
The acres in Wadena County are in the north and east with a predominance of pine trees in the areas. Though, an assessment of the timber and where trails, wildlife habitats and hunting are located in the area will be completed, as Berns-Melhus said. The Bemijdi Mill will also remain operational and owned by Potlatch.
The Conservation Fund has purchased 63,000 acres outside of this project from Potlatch since 2012, according to Berns-Melhus.
The Fund will pay property taxes, equal to what Potlatch previously paid, on the land for the duration of their ownership. The Fund does not want to own the land after 10 years. They hope to sell to county, state and tribal governments not private owners.
Commissioners questioned the benefit to the county in terms of revenue, if the land became county-owned. Commissioner Bill Stearns wondered whether the county would make more or less than the property taxes if the land were owned privately and if there would be additional revenue. Berns-Melhus shared ideas for revenue including selling hunting licenses and gravel and working with snowmobile clubs as well as Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund grants. The county likely cannot sell hunting licenses, according to planning and zoning director Deana Malone and county attorney Kyra Ladd.
Berns-Melhus also detailed the example of St. Louis County, the state and school trust having increased revenue from land turned over to them from The Conservation Fund for the Sax-Zim Bog national bird site. Cass County has also used costs from thinning portions of a forest for a new building at no cost to taxpayers, according to Berns-Melhus. The tax rates between the counties are not comparable with Wadena County having a tax rate almost triple that of Cass County, as of 2018, according to commissioner Jon Kangas.
One property owner from the northern portion of the county noted his question on what could be changing in the area, specifically wondering about public hunting. Potlatch had hunting licenses and hunting land leases as well as generally allowed hunting to the public, as Berns-Melhus said. Hunting will continue with licenses through The Conservation Fund. Outdoor recreation such as hiking, biking, walking and camping are allowed on the public land without permits.
A new committee may be formed for the considerations of the Wadena County acres. County auditor-treasurer Heather Olson, county assessor Lee Brekke, commissioner-elect Murlyn Kreklau, commissioner Chuck Horsager and Kangas also met with Berns-Melhus and Nelson following the meeting. Kreklau, who is replacing Horsager, will represent the Huntersville, Sebeka and Nimrod areas and Kangas represents the Menahga area.