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Kurt Nelson has an agreement to sell about 75 acres of land in Lake Johanna Township of Pope County to Pheasants Forever, which wants to transfer it to the state of Minnesota. The property contains fens, wetlands, an oak- covered esker ridge and the county's only designated trout stream cuts through a corner of it. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

Prime hunting land is target for 'no net gain' debate in west central Minnesota

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Morris, 56267
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

LAKE JOHANNA TOWNSHIP, POPE COUNTY -- Kurt Nelson has 80 acres of land in the southeast corner of Pope County that are the kind often touted in the classified ads of outdoor publications as "prime hunting acres.''

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Last winter he dished out more than 3,000 bushels of corn to pheasants and deer just outside the back door of his home here.

"I'm too busy feeding them to hunt them,'' laughed Nelson, a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

This spring he's watching waterfowl splash in the four-acre wetland he restored, and anticipating the green-up. A prescribed burn conducted a couple of years ago has revived a wide-range of native prairie plants on much of the land. He knows it will soon be shooting forth a fireworks display of colorful flowers through the warm months ahead.

Part of the property holds natural fens, where the water table furnishes moisture to plants from below. There is a glacial esker creating a prominent ridge covered by oak trees, a haven for deer.

Mud Creek, arguably the clearest running water in Pope County and its only designated trout stream, cuts a path through a corner of the land.

A good portion of the land had been grazed until he bought it several years ago. Nelson feels its use for agriculture does more harm than good. "Put a cow in here and it would sink to its belly,'' he said.

He kept goats for a while, and even they wouldn't venture beyond a baseball diamond-sized island of dry ground.

It's what he considers a prime location for a public hunting area, and that's his intention. The Pope County chapter of Pheasants Forever has an agreement to purchase roughly 75 of the 80 acres from Nelson, with plans to transfer those acres to the state of Minnesota for use as a public hunting area.

Perfect location for a controversy too, Nelson has since discovered.

By a three-to-two vote, the Pope County Board of Commissioners on April 5 made known their opposition to turning the land over to the state, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in particular.

Pope County is among a number of counties in the state to have adopted a "no net gain of state-owned land,'' explained Paul Gerde, a Pope County commissioner who represents the southeast corner of the county.

It's similar to the bill State Representative Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, has introduced in the Minnesota legislature.

There's a strong sentiment among many that the state owns more land than it should. Taking more land off the tax rolls harms local governments, according to Gerde.

If the state owns the property, it will pay Pope County an annual fee equal to three fourths of one percent of the appraised value of the land. In this case, that will represent a greater annual payment than Nelson now pays in property taxes because the appraised value is greater than its current assessment, Nelson pointed out.

Five years after it becomes public land, it will be re-assessed and that value will likely reduce the payment in lieu of taxes, resulting in less revenue to the county, counters Gerde.

But for Gerde, the bigger issue is economics. There are lots of parcels in Pope County that are desired for habitat and hunting opportunities, but these are also properties where people can start small farming or other operations, he explained.

"It's in the best interest of the county to have private individuals on this property contributing to our local economy,'' said Gerde.

There's more economic activity when people are living on the land, whether they've set up a small shop, hobby farm or a productive farm, he said.

He also believes there is enough public hunting land available now in the county, adding that it appears the number of hunters is starting to decline.

Gerde said the county has received resolutions of support from the Minnesota Corn and Soybean Growers and Cattlemen's Associations for its "no net'' lands policy.

The local chapter of Pheasants Forever has made known its feelings too. In a letter published earlier in the Pope County Tribune of Glenwood, it pointed out that only four percent or 18,732 acres of land in the county is public. That includes the Glacial Lakes State Park and the Nature Conservancy's Ordway Prairie.

The chapter argues that public lands for hunting are a "definite plus'' to the Pope County economy.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found a $4 return in recreation dollars spent for every $1 invested in land, according to Matt Holland, senior field coordinator with Pheasants Forever in New London.

"There are tremendous benefits in public land, and not just for wildlife and habitat,'' said Holland. Public lands offer hunting and other recreational opportunities for local residents, and represent an important quality of life issue beyond the economic benefits they offer, he explained.

He also points out that there is a huge disparity in the availability of public lands. In some northern, forested counties, public lands can represent more than one-half the land base. In farm country, public lands represent usually as little as two, three or four percent of the land base.

Nelson believes there is also an underlying property rights issue at stake for him as a property owner. He asks -- and his attorney has posed the question as well -- whether the county can interfere with the potential sale of his property by opposing its transfer to another party.

Gerde said the county isn't looking to stop the sale: Nelson is free to sell to Pheasants Forever.

He also points out that the county would not oppose the sale if the state would put a like amount of public land up for sale to private ownership.

Most of all, he said the county is making the point that it believes the state owns enough public land. Gerde would also like to see more open communication with the DNR, Nature Conservancy and other public entities about their intentions in the county.

As for Nelson, he said the sale is basically on hold.

He's had inquiries from individuals who are looking to own their own hunting land. Nelson said he feels strongly that this land is worth protecting for public use and for future generations, and that's what he wants to assure.

Holland said Pheasants Forever recognizes that there are legitimate concerns from both sides of the issue, and hopes the right balance can be struck to address all of the needs.

Resolution in place in

at least dozen counties

It's not known how many counties have adopted a "no net gain of public lands'' resolution, but a survey conducted by the Minnesota Association of Counties gives some idea.

The association surveyed county administrators and coordinators in February 2001 as to whether or not their counties had passed a "no net gain of public lands'' resolution.

The association reports that 58 counties responded, with 12 indicating that they had. Those counties are: Beltrami, Fillmore, Itasca, Kittson, Lake, Lake of the Woods, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, Roseau, St. Louis and Traverse.

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