One of Minnesota's largest private landowners might change how it manages its lands and the changes could affect hunters.
Potlatch Corp., which owns 337,000 acres statewide, is considering a new land management program in which private parties could lease land. It isn't certain how many of Potlatch's 54,893 acres in the Brainerd area would be available. Currently all Potlatch acreage is open to the public year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. But under the lease program being considered, individuals could lease land for all or part of the year and have exclusive rights to it.
"We're not sure yet how it would work," said Tom Murn, Potlatch resource manager for Minnesota. "We don't know if the leases would be year round or just for the hunting season. But there's no question we could provide lessees with a quality hunting experience."
Potlatch didn't consider leasing before because company land managers thought hunters weren't interested because of the availability of other public land, Murn said. But in recent years many hunters have asked about leases.
"The No. 1 reason is safety," said Frank Carroll, Potlatch director of public affairs. "They want a place where they can hunt with their kids and not see an orange coat around every tree."
A pilot lease program was tried this past firearms deer season on about 1,000 acres in scattered parcels statewide. Carroll said the lessees "enjoyed it very much."
Under the lease plan being considered, persons who already hunt the land where leases would be available would get the first chance to lease it. Company foresters already know who traditionally hunts some lands, Murn said.
"But there's no way we'll please everybody. Pick an area and no matter what we do the changes would affect people. We're trying to pay attention to that. But not everyone would be happy."
Though lease rates haven't been decided, Murn said they probably would range from $4 to $20 per acre, depending on the property. Swamp land would cost less to lease than forested land.
Potlatch would hope that leases not only raise money for the company but improve the quality of its lands, Murn said. Activities that degrade the land and the hunting experience, including free-roaming ATVs, garbage dumping, the building of permanent treestands and theft of portable treestands, are a problem in some areas.
"It would allow us to bring order to chaos," Murn said.
"We've learned that lessees in other companies develop a personal relationship to the land," Carroll added. "They feel they have some stake in its welfare."
Lessees of adjoining parcels could practice quality deer management strategies on their properties, Murn said. QDM promotes the survival of male deer but requires large tracts of land to be successful. It fails if hunters on a property pass on shooting immature bucks but hunters on the next property shoot them.
Leasing isn't the only way to gain Potlatch land. Today about 1,500 acres are up for sale. Lands for sale are listed on the company website at PCHlandsales.com. New listings are expected to be on the website in February or March.
The DNR is looking at buying Potlatch land adjacent to Crow Wing State Park. Several other conservation organizations such as the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Ruffed Grouse Society and Trout Unlimited also are working with Potlatch on conservation easements.
Spokesmen for two of the these organizations have mixed feelings about Potlatch leases.
"They can't be blamed for trying to manage their lands in the best fiscal way they can," said Mark Johnson, president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "But it's sad to see land go to lease. There are chunks of land I would love to lease, but I'm more or less opposed to it. It reduces public access for all hunters."
Rick Horton, a biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society, said a lease program might not affect grouse hunters too much.
"Even if they did lease lands for bird hunting there's plenty of public land left," Horton said. "We're talking about a relatively small portion of the land."
The idea for a lease program came about in 1999 when Potlatch created a Resource Management Division within the company. Among other tasks, the division is developing a land management plan that will meet international certification standards for sustainable forestry. Companies are certified when they meet 11 objectives established by the American Forest and Paper Association.
"It's like the Underwriters Laboratory seal on an appliance," Carroll said. "No matter where you are in the world this certification says you have a credible management system and that you're trying to do things right."
Potlatch is weighing the benefits of leasing its lands against the benefits it would gain through a new tax program called the "Sustainable Forest Incentives Program, " in which landowners with at least 20 acres and a forest management plan pay less than the standard tax rate. But a stipulation is that landowners with more than 1,920 acres must allow public access on their lands. Potlatch falls into that category and company officials must determine if the tax break would earn more money than lease sales.
"It's something we'll take a close look at, but I would say in most cases leasing would (be more profitable)," Murn said.
The bottom line is that Potlatch must consider the bottom line, Murn added.
"We've been around for 100 years and we want to be around for 100 more. (Leases) are an opportunity we're exploring as a business."
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