Not so long ago, northern Minnesota forests offered endless room to roam. Sure, you’d find some posted private land, but once you got away from areas of habitation, the woods were pretty much open to all. Few folks other than surveyors and foresters paid much attention to the unmarked and indiscernible property lines.
The land ownership pattern was (and still is) a checkerboard of public and private holdings. National forests, state forests and county-managed tax-forfeited lands were interspersed with private lands held by timber companies, mining corporations and hydropower utilities. As far as the average hunter, snowmobiler or berry-picker was concerned, it was all just woods. A “tree farm” property tax rate for lands dedicated to forestry included a caveat that private landowners would allow public access to their lands in return for reduced taxes.
No landowner really cared what you did out there, because recreational users left little behind other than footprints. Primitive off-road vehicles were mostly limited to existing forest trails. Permanent deer stands were simple platforms made of natural materials. Snowmobile trails were mostly ungroomed pathways. Aside from hunting season, it was pretty quiet out there.
Changes began occurring in the late 1980s when the value of forest land began to rise due to an expanding timber industry, a growing demand for recreational property and the development of new off-road vehicles that made it easier to venture into the woods. As land values rose in the 1990s, corporate landowners began looking for ways to capitalize their vast holdings, including selling small parcels as recreational property, leasing hunting rights or selling all of their lands to timber investment groups. Wildlife biologists warned that northern Minnesota’s corporate-owned forests, which everyone had always taken for granted as open to public hunting and other recreation, were at risk of being closed to public use.
State policy-makers and conservation groups responded to the challenge in multiple ways. Among the first was the state’s purchase of Minnesota Power lands along the St. Louis River and its major tributaries, which was championed State Representative Willard Munger. The acquisition protected miles of undeveloped river shorelines, added thousands of acres to the state’s timber base and ensured continued public recreational access. While the purchase was a good deal for the state, it wasn’t by any means a model for accomplishing similar objectives on corporate holdings totaling millions of acres.
Retaining public recreational access has been accomplished in a number of ways. Conservation groups, backed with state funding, have purchased permanent easements on some forest industry lands. For mining company land on Lake Vermilion, the state chose to purchase the property for a new state park. Sometimes, the interests of a company and the state haven’t coincided, leading to the sale of some holdings or leasing of hunting rights.
In 2001, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Sustainable Forestry Incentives Act (SFIA), which replaced the outmoded tree farm tax rate. Although the passage of the act attracted minimal attention among the state’s outdoor press and hunting organizations, it led to big changes in recreational access to private forest lands. While in the past, allowing public recreational access was part of the deal for receiving a lower tax rate on forest land, SFIA simply gave landowners with 20 or more acres of forest land a $7 per acre tax break if they agreed to grow trees on the property for a period of eight years. Only landowners with holdings total more than 1,920 acres (three square miles) were required to provide public access.
The SFIA has been a great deal for recreational property owners. At the start, it was a good deal for corporate landowners, too. Their tax break came to them as essentially a rebate payment. However, when the state’s budget woes became overwhelming, Governor Pawlenty and the Legislature reneged on the deal and capped payments to large landowners at $100,000. Since some corporations own hundreds of thousands of acres, the $100,000 payment was just chump change.
This brings us to the present, where Minnesota’s newest corporate landowner, an investment firm called Molpus Timberland Investment Group, recently threatened to close 128,000 acres of its northern Minnesota holdings to the public, including hunting, groomed snowmobile trails and even roads providing access to other private and public lands. The threatened closure was a response to the state’s cap on SFIA payments, which reduced to amount received by the company from over $2 million to $100,000. Molpus and two other corporate landowners took the state to court for breach of contract, but lost in the Court of Appeals. The State Supreme Court refused to hear the case. While Molpus has agreed to leave the lands open for now, the issue has only been deferred—not resolved.
Molpus wasn’t the only corporate landowner left holding the bag when the Legislature decided to cap SFIA payments. In fact, it may be best to look at resolving the issue of access to Molpus lands as today’s challenge. It is very likely future challenges remain to guarantee recreational access to other corporate forest lands. As for Molpus, northern Minnesota legislators Tom Bakk and David Dill say the deal they’ve reached with the company to keeps its lands open lasts only through the end of the 2013 legislative session. Does this mean the Legislature has a few months to fix whatever is broken in the SFIA? Or will they simply come up with a way to please Molpus and kick the SFIA can down the road?
The answers to those questions may depend upon the outcome of the election. If the Legislature remains controlled by Republicans, nearly all of whom hail from somewhere other than northern Minnesota, addressing the concerns of the timber industry and outdoor enthusiasts may be a low priority. While the odds of addressing the issue may improve if the Democrats assume control of one or both houses, the state may still have trouble coming up with the money necessary to do any deal.
An obvious source of funding is the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which was tapped in a big way a couple of years ago to purchase easements for corporate forests around Grand Rapids. While using heritage money to acquire permanent public easements is appropriate, it is also hugely expensive and could preclude other, equally beneficial conservation acquisitions. Also, if the Legislature decides to override existing Heritage Council spending recommendations to deal with Molpus or other corporate landowners, the resulting political fallout will be nasty.
At any rate, Molpus fired a shot across the northern Minnesota’s bow when it threatened to close its lands to the public. As the old song says, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Minnesota is one of the very few states where corporate forests are largely open to the public, giving us millions of additional acres available for outdoor recreation. Losing that access not only shuts out hunters, berry-pickers and others, but also diminishes the natural resource base upon which the tourism industry depends. While maintaining public recreational access will be expensive, it’s a good investment in northern Minnesota’s future.