Two years ago this month Potlatch Corp., which owns 360,000 acres in Minnesota, began leasing its lands to private parties. Leaseholders have exclusive year-round access to the lands, though others still can get on the land with permission from the leaseholder. Leases are annual, beginning May 1 and ending April 30. Currently, Crow Wing County has just over 4,000 acres available for lease in 29 tracts. Cass County has 6,500 acres available in 43 tracts. Application deadline is Jan. 8.
This past week The Dispatch interviewed Ed Patrias, Potlatch's land lease manager.
Has the program accomplished your objectives?
Patrias: Yes. It's created new revenues faster than planting trees and waiting 10 years to harvest them. But just as important it's helped us get control of our lands. Ninety percent of the people respected them but the other 10 percent didn't. They left garbage, cut tree cuts and rutted up roads. Now we have a handle on all that. We now know who's out there and what they're up to.
How many current leases does Potlatch have in Minnesota? What's the total acreage?
Patrias: We have some 300 leases that encompass about 34,000 acres and somewhere in neighborhood of 1,200 lease members.
Have any changes been made to the program since it started? Do you anticipate future changes?
Patrias: It's been trial and error. Going in we didn't know what the demand would be and for what size acreage. Some of the first parcels we offered were too large. People said, "Instead of 320 acres could you split that into two 160s?" We still have tracts that have gone unclaimed.
How many new tracts are available this year?
Patrias: We have 575 new tracts listed on our Web site right now (www.pchhuntingleases.com). It's not first-come, first served. We review every application. Our target customer is the landowner adjacent to the tract being offered or the party that's hunted there for the past 30 years. That's who we want to lease to. We send postcards to adjacent landowners when a tract comes up for lease. We don't want them to be out of the loop.
What are your plans for future leases in the Brainerd area?
Patrias: The program will continue to grow in your area for the next few years.
Any plans to lease land in Morrison County?
Patrias: No, not in the foreseeable future.
Is the demand for leases high? Is there a waiting list?
Patrias: We've had parcels that haven't had any applicants and we've had parcels that had applications we chose not to accept. But in the future we'll put those folks on a tract.
Why not put them on the tract they applied for now?
Patrias: They had no ties to the property. Think about it. You're a guy who's hunted on that land for 25 years and you live in Thief River Falls. Now some guy from Richfield leases that tract. Your reaction will be, "I got gypped." We'll never prevent that from happening 100 percent. But if we let the tract go another year then maybe the guy from Thief River Falls hears about it. But if the same guy we denied last year applies again and nobody with past use applies, we'll let the new applicant on that property. We've been criticized for being overly cautious, but we'd rather hear that than the other way around.
Can you give an example of a model lease arrangement?
Patrias: One of the best examples is right in your backyard. Near the Brained airport is our largest lease, 1,800 acres, with more than 30 people leasing it together. That tract had gotten away from us. Easy access off Highway 210 made it a local party spot, with fires and garbage. Now the leaseholders have taken ownership of that land. They worked three straight weekends cleaning up garbage. Now we have 30 sets of eyes watching that land for us.
True, but that's a big piece of land no longer available to the public.
Patrias: Well, that land isn't completely off-limits to others. If somebody wants to pick berries there they can get the names and phone numbers of the leaseholders on the signs posting the property.
Have you had much feedback from your leaseholders?
Patrias: We have ongoing communications we plan to expand, both for information on what's going on and to let them know our restrictions, requests and requirements. We've had very few problems with the leases. People have respected the no trespassing signs. The leaseholders like going out on opening day of the deer season and not finding anybody else there.
Any negative feedback from non-leaseholders?
Patrias: We've had some. Not everybody is happy we're doing this. It's a change from past policy and any time you have change it's not liked by some. But the people next to our lands are happy they're being leased. Now they know who's there. The DNR has a list of our lands and who's leasing them. They know who to go to if there are problems.
Will Potlatch leave any of its land open to the public, or will every acre in Minnesota eventually be leased?
Patrias: We'll certainly maintain some public use. We haven't set a specific percentage. A lot of Potlatch land remains open to the public and some lands will never be leased. And remember, as long as various public ownership remains, Minnesota will always have at least 7 million acres open to public use.
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