A major land-use issue awaits resolution in the Legislature this year.
At stake is the ownership and management of 1.5 million acres of land in seven northern Minnesota counties. The sheer magnitude of the acreage and its geographic diversity make this one of the most important land-control debates in state history.
The lands in question are known as Consolidated Conservation Lands, or Con-Con lands. The land departments of the counties in which they're located -- Aitkin, Beltrami, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall and Roseau -- are fighting for control of the lands with the DNR.
Both sides have reasons for wanting to manage the lands and neither side is willing to back down. Both have support in the Legislature.
'How (this land is) managed and how it will be designated is a big issue in Aitkin County. We know the land has value as public ownership, but it also shouldn't be a liability to the taxpayers of Aitkin County.' -- Roger Howard, Aitkin County land commissioner
A bill by Rep. Irv Anderson, DFL-International Falls, would transfer the ownership to the counties while a bill authored by Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, would retain ownership by the DNR.
Why this land battle?
The counties in which the Con-Con lands are located are among the seven poorest counties in the state in terms of the tax revenues and agricultural profits generated from their acreage. A chance to make more money cannot be taken lightly. The DNR has chronic funding problems and will not willingly surrender any source of revenue.
Under the present setup the counties and the DNR split the profits from the Con-Con lands. Timber sales make up 96 percent of these profits. Last year the counties and the state each earned $2,135,683. The state's share went into the general fund, from which the DNR extracted a percentage.
These days $2 million isn't much when the overall cost of running a county government or a state agency is added up. Yet, as the old saying goes, they're not making any more land. What's there is all we have. It obvious why the counties and the state should each want to resolve this issue in their favor -- future profits are at stake.
In an effort to unite for their common cause the seven counties with Con-Con lands have formed the Joint Powers Natural Resources Board. Roger Howard, land commissioner with the Aitkin County Land Department, is the board's coordinators and the eight voting members are the county commissioners of each county. They met with DNR Commissioner Alan Garber on Friday.
"We would like to settle all of these issues right now," Howard said.
The two opposite poles of the Con-Con issue are these: at one extreme all the lands would be returned to the counties. At the other extreme all the land would be retained by the DNR and put into restrictive-use designations.
Howard predicts the final designation will not end up at either pole but somewhere in the middle.
"How it's managed and how it will be designated is a big issue in Aitkin County," he said. "We know the land has value as public ownership, but it also shouldn't be a liability to the taxpayers of Aitkin County. If we control it the land will pretty much remain open to whoever wants to use it, so public ownership or county ownership really isn't an issue. Afterall, most people have no idea if they're on state land or county land as long as the land is open for what they want to use it for."
Poor planning started it all
To understand the Con-Con issue it's necessary to understand the history of the lands in question. In the early 1900s the state wanted all of Minnesota to be a productive farmland. Attempts were made to ditch and drain land that had only marginal agricultural potential. A short growing season, marginal soil and long distances to markets all contributed to dash the plans of the state to turn northern Minnesota into an agricultural breadbasket.
It wasn't long before the new farmers went bankrupt, resulting in huge tracts of tax-forfeited land. When the farmers went broke the counties went into financial default on their ditch bond payments. Some of these ditches were dug by the counties but others were dug by the state through its efforts to promote settlement. Yet the counties were left holding the entire tab.
Today there are laws that allow counties to collect monies on tax-forfeited land, but those laws didn't take effect until 1927. By then it was too late. In Beltrami County, for example, 77 percent of the land was tax-forfeited, leaving just 23 percent on which the county could collect any taxes.
Eventually the state stepped in and agreed to pay off the ditch bonds on the Con-Con lands in exchange for ownership of the land. This happened between 1929 and 1933. The state acquired title to about 1.9 million acres of land at this time.
State law said these lands would be managed by the DNR for "conservation purposes." Over the years about 75 percent of these lands were designated as wildlife management areas or state forests. Some were sold to private landowners.
In the late 1940s the counties realized that the state had made enough money on the Con-Con lands to pay off the ditch bonds. The counties lobbied to get their lands back. This was when the Legislature passed the law that said profits should be split 50-50, but ownership was retained by the state.
That is where the status of the Con-Con land remains today.
Designation a big issue
Aitkin County has 237,000 acres of Con-Con lands. Most of this acreage has been designated as WMA's and state forest. But 40,000 remain without official classification and this is where the state and the county must come to agreement.
The Aitkin County Land Department is concerned about how this acreage will be designated. Land designated as a WMA or state forest can be logged. Land designated as a state park or scientific and natural area cannot be logged. Therefore, the county would object to either of the last two designations because neither would allow for any profits to be made from the land.
It appears as if the county will have nothing to worry about. Dennis Stauffer, communications director for the DNR, said the proposed designation of the acreage in question will be as follows: 36,087 will be state forest (475 acres are already state forest but are intended for exchange with a local government at a later date); 4,192 will be added to WMAs (including one new 11-acre WMA near Hill City); 1,112 acres will be added to the McGregor Marsh Scientific and Natural Area.
The 1,112 acres added to the McGregor Marsh is potentially the only acreage the county will have no chance to make money on. The rest could be logged in due time.
Another sticking point between the counties and the state is how the receipts from the Con-Con lands are shared. Currently the DNR agrees to share with the counties the receipts it gets from leases, easements, timber sales and land sales. The counties would like to expand this base and believe they have a state statute on the books that will support their claim. Some of the revenue the counties believe they should get a share of include monies received as gifts for projects on Con-Con lands, a portion of the license sales and income received from the sales of birds and animals.
"The definition of receipts the DNR uses is much narrower that the definition in the statute," Howard, land commissioner with the Aitkin County Land Department said. "Say you poached a deer or were over your limit on fish. You would be required to pay the state restitution for the game as well as the fine. Shouldn't the county get a share of that money if the violation occurred on a Con-Con land? Plus the county has to foot the bill for the court costs involved in prosecuting these individuals. People must pay to use our state parks. Shouldn't the county get a share of those receipts?"
Scott Arneson , Aitkin County administrator, said he fears many people think the counties are trying to take money from the DNR, but says that is not true.
"We're just trying to get what the law says we should have," Arneson said. "And really you shouldn't say its what the counties want. It's the taxing districts within the counties. The townships and the school districts are who's missing out on this money."
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