FOREST LAKE (AP) — Some 25 years ago, Hank Houle sold a cherished tract of hunting land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for a song —- and the belief it would be forever protected from development and open to hunting.
Now the land is posted no trespassing, no hunting.
Turns out, the DNR retained rights to sell the land, as Houle and other donors have found out in recent years — after the sale.
The surprise sales have proved a public relations problem for the DNR, which is considering changing the way it handles land gifts. It might be out of the agency’s control, as some state lawmakers are pushing their own set of reforms.
In the late 1980s, the landmark Reinvest in Minnesota program, or RIM, was just getting started, en route to protecting more than 100,000 acres statewide.
Houle jumped at the chance to gift the parcel where he and his offspring hunted pheasants, ducks, deer and coyotes.
“A lot of memories, a lot of first shots, a lot of good hunting here,” said Houle, 86, on a recent day as he overlooked the site, a quilt of wetlands and low-lying grasses and willows just east of Interstate 35 near Forest Lake.
In what was known as a “bargain sale,” in 1988 the DNR paid Houle, a dairy farmer-turned-real estate broker, $27,750 — half the appraised value — for the 80 acres along the border of Washington and Anoka counties.
A ribbon-cutting was held for the Houle Wildlife Management Area, also known as Brown’s Preserve, named after Houle’s chocolate lab, Brownie, which he had buried there.
The namesake for a hunter, his dog and a legacy can still be found on maps of public hunting grounds sold in sporting goods stores throughout the state. But don’t go there expecting to hunt.
Last year, the DNR sold the land to the Rice Creek Watershed District, which has jurisdiction over a ditch running through the land and is planning a major drainage project there. Houle found out about the sale last fall when a friend planning to coyote hunt called and told him the Houle sign had been replaced by the no-trespassing sign.
“I was devastated,” Houle recalled. “I didn’t do anything for a while because I was so shocked. But then we started asking questions.”
What Houle and his family learned was that the DNR, the watershed district and other governmental bodies had been negotiating the sale for years. No one had bothered to tell Houle.
“That was an oversight on our part, I must admit,” said Kim Hennings, a land acquisition coordinator for the DNR. Hennings wasn’t only instrumental in the 2011 sale, he also closed the 1988 deal in which Houle gave title of the land to the DNR. “I’ve called and apologized to the family.”
Legally speaking, it appears the DNR was always free to sell the land — as they are with nearly every parcel they’ve acquired.
It might seem counterproductive in a state where taxpayers have approved a sales tax hike to protect more land, but the DNR sells lands regularly. Usually, they’re small, isolated parcels with no public access and thus, little practical chance of being managed by the agency or used by the public. Sometimes the Legislature orders the DNR to sell land to raise money.
And occasionally a small WMA is sold. In recent years, suburban and rural development has encroached on WMA borders, making hunting a thorny, if not unsafe, proposition.
In 2010, the DNR auctioned off the 32-acre Jackson WMA in Stillwater, the bulk of which was bought by an individual. The heirs to the original landowner found out afterward; like the Houles, they weren’t pleased.
Such sales are also closely watched by groups like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited because they often raise money to buy lands and then donate them to the DNR.
Hennings said the DNR doesn’t promise that gifted land won’t ever be resold. “Over time, things change,” he said. “With development and other things, sometimes these lands no longer can be managed in the way they were intended.”
Still, Hennings acknowledged, potential land donors become cautious when they hear of such events. The DNR is considering adopting a “Donor’s Bill of Rights” that would mandate donors be told, in writing, that land might be sold in the future.
Several of Houle’s offspring, including son Dan, son-in-law Jim Sederholm, and grandsons Dave and Jason Sederholm, have waged a campaign to raise awareness of the sale scenario in hopes that no future landowners are blind-sided.
Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, sponsored a bill that would require the DNR to disclose in advance that a donor or seller knows land might be resold.
Vandeveer’s bill, which was approved by the Senate as part of a larger fishing and hunting bill, also included another clause: It would require the DNR to repay the original landowner, or heirs, the original market value of the land at the time of donation. That provision appeared destined to be removed from the final bill to be presented to Gov. Mark Dayton, but Vandeveer said he plans to push again next year.
The good news for the former Houle WMA is the habitat actually will be improved — to the tune of more than $1 million.
The Rice Creek Watershed District has begun a five-year wetland restoration project there. The area will become a high-quality “wetland bank” in which landowners who destroy other wetlands can offset those destroyed — as required by law — by buying credits in the bank.
“We are confident that this entire property as a whole will be much improved from a biological and wildlife habitat perspective,” said Phil Belfiori, administrator for the watershed district. All but 1 acre of land will be forever protected from development by a conservation easement, he said.
Creating a wetland bank is not allowed on a WMA under current DNR policy because the larger goal is to protect wetlands everywhere, but even the Houle family agrees that the district’s plan will improve the site.
In addition, the larger deal surrounding the sale allowed the DNR to purchase about 10 acres of buildable land adjacent to the nearby Lamprey Pass WMA. Hennings said building on that land could have threatened portions of that WMA.