By Shawn Perich
Major land issues affecting thousands of northern Minnesota recreational users didn’t make the agenda of the DNR’s annual Hunting and Fishing Roundtable, but agency leaders were more than willing to talk about them. I spoke with Craig Engwall, director of the DNR’s Northeast Region and DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr regarding school trust lands and a separate issue–ensuring timber lands owned by the Molpus Woodlands Group remain open to public recreation.
I was especially surprised the school trust lands weren’t on the agenda, since last year the Legislature considered tacking an access surcharge on hunting license fees to pay the School Trust Fund for the public use of the land. The surcharge didn’t pass, but it raises big questions about how recreational activities like hunting, snowmobiling and berry picking will be managed on northern Minnesota’s 2.5 million acres of school trust lands. To learn more, I talked with Engwall, because 2.2 million acres of trust lands are in his region.
“There’s no consensus yet on what Minnesota will do,” he said. Engwall pointed out that Montana charges an access fee for its trust lands.
Last year, the Legislature directed the DNR to begin managing school trust lands to provide a greater economic benefit to the School Trust. The primary sources of revenue from school trust lands are the receipts from timber sales and mineral leases, activities already occurring there. While the DNR has changed its internal bookkeeping to send more money to the School Trust, it is unlikely to find ways to generate substantial new revenues. In fact, it may be difficult to generate any revenue from some of the school trust lands.
Engwall said 20,000 acres of trust lands are designated as old growth forests where timber harvest is not allowed. The vast majority of public accesses to lakes in the northeast are located on trust lands. Many miles of undeveloped lake shorelines, including 81,000 linear feet of Lake Vermilion shoreline, are on trust lands, too. Currently, lands such as these are not economically productive for the trust.
So what does this mean? Will we start logging off old growth forests? Will we be charged a fee to launch a boat at a public access? Will the state hold a fire sale of public lakeshores? While it’s easy to envision such worst-case scenarios, the DNR isn’t planning any fast moves for changing management strategies or disposing of trust lands.
DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr told me the agency is conducting a comprehensive review of trust lands for a report to the Legislature. The review includes a parcel-by-parcel inventory of trust lands and their economic value. Once the review is complete, the agency can devise a plan for moving forward. That plan will likely identify shoreline areas where the highest and best use is selling them. The strategy for doing so may include establishing conservation easements prior to sale to protect riparian habitat.
Other lands may be essentially sold to the state so they can be taken out of trust status. The lands would be appraised and the DNR would approach the Legislature for bonding money, which would go to the School Trust Fund. Landwehr says this may be the solution for boat launches. In many cases, undeveloped shorelines can be managed as timberlands, as they are now. Forest harvest guidelines would protect ecologically sensitive shoreline areas.
“The good news is people are paying attention to trust lands, but the bad news is they are doing so because they feel threatened,” Landwehr said. “At this point in time there is nothing the conservation/environmental community needs to fear.”
Another northern land issue is how the state will work with the Molpus Woodlands Group to ensure their lands, located south of International Falls, remain open to public recreation. Last fall, the company threatened to close 128,000 acres of its lands and forest roads to public use. Such action not only would close lands long open for public hunting, but would also close roads used to access private property and hunting cabins, as well as the snowmobile trail network many resorts rely upon for winter tourism. Local legislators intervened and Molpus agreed to a one-year moratorium on the proposed closure.
At issue is the company’s participation in the Sustainable Forest Incentives Act (SFIA), which allows large landowners to agree to provide public access and to sustainably manage forests in return for tax breaks. Initially, those tax breaks were worth $2 million annually on the Molpus lands, but the Legislature later capped SFIA payments at $100,000. As the threatened closure indicates, the company is unhappy with the greatly reduced SFIA payments.
Engwall says the company is willing to consider conservation easements similar to the ones put in place in recent years on other industrial forest holdings. Easements are more politically palatable to northern county commissioners who worry about losing their tax base from public acquisitions of private land. Generally speaking, easements ensure the property remains part of the working forest while providing public benefits such as access.
The DNR and Molpus are currently just beginning to talk. The company hasn’t identified the lands where it is willing to sell easements. Once it does, DNR can start the easement process, which generally takes 12 to 24 months to complete. The DNR and the company first agree upon lands of interest and negotiate the details of the easement restrictions. Then the lands are appraised. Based on the appraisal, the parties negotiate a price. Landwehr hopes the DNR can put together a project proposal for the start of the next funding round for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
“This will be one of the last, big easement transactions,” says Landwehr.
Just a decade ago, conservationists were worried hunters and other recreational users would lose access to industrial forest lands as timber companies sought new ways to stay profitable. Instead, using tax proceeds from the Legacy Amendment, the state has worked with conservation groups and big companies to purchase easements that preserve public access and the state’s timber base. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this final transaction can be completed.