Crow Wing County commissioners made a decision Tuesday that produced a rare event — sustained applause.
The plan, which still has a way to go before it’s completed, would set aside the first designated scientific and natural area in the county.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is proposing the creation of the Mille Lacs Moraine Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) by acquiring two large private land tracts for a total of 585 acres. The goal of the SNA program is to have public land, like a park or wildlife management area, but with an emphasis on protecting the best of Minnesota’s natural heritage — from rare species to old-growth forests to significant land features. There are currently 154 SNAs in the state.
The proposed Mille Lacs Moraine ecological site, including the SNA, is an 82-square mile area of outstanding biodiversity significance, the DNR reported.
Steve Wilson, DNR regional scientific and natural area specialist, said it’s an opportunity to protect lakes and wetlands by steep moraine ridges created by the glaciers, which are now covered in red oak and basswood forest and home to rare species like red-shouldered hawks and cerulean warblers. The larger land tract considered for acquisition is 320 acres owned by the Hormel Trust and encompassing all of Sunfish Lake. The land is north of Highway 26 and south of Borden Lake near Garrison. The other adjoining tract, the Havel tract, covers 265 acres.
“There is flora and fauna I may have never seen in my life,” said Sandy Ash, Borden Lake resident of the area. “I want that for my grandchildren. I want that for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. ... make your decision one that will benefit now, after and after that.”
With an SNA designation, people could observe nature, take part in educational or scientific research and hike or walk, ski or snowshoe, fish and hunt. Activities not normally allowed in an SNA include camping, campfires, trapping, bikes, or anything with a motor.
In a letter, Darrel Palmer, spokesman for the Crow Wing County ATV Association, asked to use a road running north and south through the land. If people didn’t stay on the trail or abide by regulations, Palmer said the trail could be closed after a year’s trial use.
Wilson said the land is private and gated and has been for years. He said the Hormel Trust is strongly opposed to allowing motorized traffic. From research on the land, Wilson said the road has been there for a long time connecting Highway 26 with Garrison, but it was never a public road.
There is not an ATV trail there now, but Wilson said the door is not closed to that possible use in the future.
“The option remains open for an ATV trail and that’s the best we can do right now,” Wilson said, adding he didn’t want to mislead the ATV people as putting a trail in there will be meeting a high bar but he believed there may be an option with the old road.
Ash said she owns an ATV but there are other trails and she urged the county not to let a wheeled vehicle ruin the land.
Chairman Doug Houge said that was not a decision before the board Tuesday. The county did vote to provide its blessing for the proposed land purchase. Houge said they’ll let the process take its course.
Commissioner Paul Thiede praised the DNR for its approach to the project and what he described as a more collaborative effort. Thiede said whether it was legal or not, ATVs were using the road and got away with it. Wilson said putting an ATV trial in there now was a like fitting a round peg in a square hole right now.
Other residents also spoke in favor of the project and of protecting it against the potential of one person riding off the trail damaging property.
The county also has 160 acres, of which the DNR noted it may ask that a portion could be added to the SNA later. As for property taxes, Wilson said the private lands property tax receipts were $6,186 in 2011. If both parcels are purchased, the DNR estimates the county would receive payment in lieu of taxes of about $10,000.
“It’s a gorgeous piece,” said Commissioner Phil Trusty said of the property. “If I lived there I would want to keep it the way it is.”
Trusty had questions about the public use of the road but said the decision of the property owners against ATVs was new information to him.
The DNR, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, is proposing to use Reinvest in Minnesota critical habitat match funds to buy the land. As negotiations continue, no purchase price was offered.
An additional 80 acres of adjoining DNR forestry land could be added later. And the Bassett Lakes chain could include motorized use with that addition.
In a letter to the county board, Garrison Mayor Bruce Pierson said designating such a natural area would protect the best of Minnesota’s remaining natural heritage and provide an opportunity for others to enjoy it for years to come.