LITCHFIELD, Minn. - A version of the national debate over public lands has recently played itself out in Meeker County in east-central Minnesota, where conservationists were surprised when the county board initially denied the transfer of land by willing sellers to the state.
The Meeker County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 7 voted 3-2 to deny a request by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to purchase 150 acres for a wildlife management area.
Commissioner Mike Huberty had a change of heart, and on Dec. 19 brought the issue back for a vote. This time, the commissioners approved the sale on a 3-2 vote, with Huberty joining Commissioners Beth Oberg and Joe Tacheny in approving the sale.
Members of the Boll family, which owns the land, and members of the local Pheasants Forever and Meeker-McLeod chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association had filled the county board's meeting room on Dec. 7 but were not provided an opportunity to speak at the meeting. Hearing from these and other supporters of the sale afterward had a lot to do with his decision to change his mind and bring the matter back for a vote, Huberty said.
He just didn't feel right after the Dec. 7 vote. "I fought with that one a couple of days," he said.
Alan Boll said family members had been surprised by the decision to deny the sale. His grandfather, who died in 1965, had owned the land as part of his farm, but had always left intact the prairie, woodlands and wetlands that comprise this sale. He said the property is owned by 13 family members, and they decided they wanted to sell it to the DNR.
At one point, they had refused offers by a prospective buyer who wanted to clear-cut its oak woods. They also gave up the right to sell gravel on the property to make possible the DNR acquisition.
"We wanted to sell to the DNR so not just the big shots could use it," Boll said. "Let the private people walk through and have a place to hunt."
Public hunting is one of the core uses of the state's wildlife management areas, which are established to protect land for wildlife production along with hunting, trapping and fishing.
Cory Netland, wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR, said he too was surprised when the request to purchase the land had been denied. He saw no feature of the acquisition that would be controversial, he said. He had worked with the Boll family for three years to acquire the property. It is located south of Litchfield along state Highway 22.
Netland described the site as an important one to protect. The area is the core of the wintering grounds for the deer herd in northern McLeod County and southern Meeker County, and consequently important to the herd's overall health and vitality.
And whether used for hunting, birding or hiking, the property consists of habitat that is fast disappearing from the landscape. The property includes 40 acres of woodlands - mature white pines, basswood and hackberry - that were part of the Big Woods forest that covered eastern Minnesota in the pre-settlement era, Netland said.
It also includes a 35-acre native prairie, one of only a handful of native prairie parcels of that size remaining in Meeker County. The divide in Minnesota between woodlands and prairie cuts right through the property, Netland said.
The property also includes wetlands and a gravelly, 32-acre parcel that is tilled as cropland. The cropland consists of poor soil, but will continue to be cropped by a local farmer, Netland said. Ten acres will be used as a food plot.
Gene Putzier, president of the local Deer Hunters Association chapter, said there is no doubt that the new wildlife management area will attract lots of interest from deer, turkey and pheasant hunters. He believes that trails in the woodlands and prairie will also attract people who enjoy the outdoors for other pursuits, whether birding or hiking. He is especially hoping that this and other public land can serve to introduce young people to the outdoors.
"One commissioner said if we get one kid off an iPad, we did a good job," Putzier said. He had been surprised by the initial rejection of the land sale. Afterward, he presented a letter to Huberty outlining why the sale should be allowed.
Putzier said local outdoor groups such as Pheasants Forever and the Deer Hunters Association chapters would have stepped forward and purchased the land to turn it over to the state had they anticipated the initial decision denying the DNR's purchase.
Counties have the right to deny land sales to the state, but not those made to nonprofit groups.
Putzier said the discussion preceding the denial vote on Dec. 7 focused on the impact of taking the land off the tax rolls. The property was assessed $2,582 in taxes for 2018. As a wildlife management area, the state will make an annual payment in lieu of taxes of $3,420.
"I didn't understand his mathematics," said Putzier of Meeker County Commissioner Mike Housman, who had voiced opposition to the DNR purchase and voted against the land transfer both times, along with Commissioner Bryan Larson.
Housman said the loss of tax revenue from public lands is a concern for him, but not the only reason he opposes this and any other sale of land to the DNR. There's a cumulative toll of taking parcels from the tax rolls, as well as from the market, he said.
"To me this is an issue of economic development," Housman said. "Once we take those lands and allow the DNR to purchase them, they are forever owned by the government and there is no opportunity in the foreseeable future for these lands to be used for any other (purpose) than the DNR would choose."
Housman said he does not believe there is a need for more government-owned recreation land in the county. He said the state currently owns nearly 4,000 acres in Meeker County, which would represent about 1 percent of the 390,400 acres in it. There are also federally owned lands and county and municipal park lands, he noted.
Housman said he had county staff look at GIS mapping data, and he found that everyone in the county lives within five miles of a public property parcel, whether it's state, federal, or municipally owned.
"There really is no lack of opportunity for people to recreate on government-owned land,'' he said.
He sits on the county's Economic Development Authority board, and said he hears more often about a lack of housing in the county when companies want to recruit people for upper management positions.
"There's no suitable housing for their high-end staff looking for half-million-dollar houses to live in," Housman said.
Half-acre parcels could be carved out of the woodland area of the property while preserving the vast majority of the woods, he said.
A family of four buying groceries and goods and paying taxes on a home represents much more economic activity for the county than visiting hunters who might have lunch at the cafe or buy shotgun shells in town, he said.
He also said that many private individuals purchase property for conservation and hunting opportunities. Transferring ownership to a government entity is not required for conservation, he said.
He also questions whether the DNR can manage the lands it has, and charged that it keeps raising license fees to "feed the monster. It's time for them to just stop," he said.
According to the DNR website, there are over 1.3 million acres of high-quality habitat in about 1,500 wildlife management areas located throughout the state.
Housman said he knows his opposition to the sale struck a raw nerve with those that support public lands. He said he was not necessarily expecting the first vote to go the way it had, either. But now, he said, he would like to see a discussion in the county on how much land should be publicly owned.
"I don't feel we need any more, and if we do, I'd like for somebody to tell me how much that is so we can plan for it and not be continually pecked away at by the DNR."
Huberty said he's had a lot of calls from people thanking him for bringing the matter back to a vote and allowing the land transfer. He's also had a few from people who were not happy, mostly over the tax issue, he said.