MORRIS – Despite lingering dissatisfaction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Stevens County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to approve the purchase of about 133 acres of land in Framnas Township adjacent to the Benson Wildlife Management Area.
Commissioner Ron Staples cast the dissenting vote.
Glenwood Area Wildlife Manager Kevin Kotts said the two parcels of the Benson WMA are currently used by duck hunters. The 133 acres between the wetland areas is primarily grassland.
For the last 15 years, most of the land was enrolled in a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). When the contract expired in October, the DNR met with the landowners and agreed on a price for the property, but the sale needs to be approved by the board.
"We think it's real important to add the grassland - that's where a lot of our prairie animals nest," said Kotts. "If we're able to add this LaFave tract it will turn it into a unit that's real nice for pheasant hunting."
"Wildlife brings a lot of money into our county during hunting season," agreed Commissioner Donny Wohlers. "I know businesses in the fall capitalize a lot on having areas for people to come."
Connecting the two small parcels will also improve the overall health of the area, said University of Minnesota, Morris biologist Margaret Kuchenreuther. Studies have shown that isolated parcels of land support fewer species than a larger, contiguous piece of land - even if the isolated parcels have the same number of acres as the connected parcel.
Kuchenreuther said the DNR has plan to restore native wildflowers to the tract will also help bees, monarchs and other local pollinators that are currently struggling.
"I see grasslands and sloughs disappearing way too fast, we have to start protecting some of it," added Commissioner Bob Kopitzke.
When land is sold to the DNR, the state of Minnesota offsets the loss of private tax dollars through Payments of Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which are based on the appraised value of the land.
Staples and Kotts disagreed over whether the PILT payments would be higher or lower than current taxes revenue. Staples said the average PILT payment in Stevens County is $22 an acre. Kotts noted that counties review land values every six years, and estimated that the value would go up during the next appraisal.
Commissioner Phil Gausman said he was frustrated by lack of cooperation on the part of the DNR.
"I won't argue the fact that it's a beneficial thing, the problem I have is when the shoe's on the other foot and people try to do drainage or units that try to work with the DNR are met with every obstacle you guys can throw in their face," said Commissioner Phil Gausman. "Quite bluntly, you don't have a good reputation. People butt heads with you all the time."
Staples said he is not in favor of selling tillable land to the DNR because of the challenges that local farmers have working with the DNR and other environmental groups.
"This is one of the reasons the DNR is very unpopular in rural Minnesota, in my eyes, they will not work with landowners and they will not work with the county on right-of-ways," said Staples.
"I wouldn't say were easy to work with," agreed Kotts, before mentioning some successful collaborations.
Joe LaFave, representing the property owners, said they thought selling the land to the DNR was a good idea because the tract has several wetlands and would be difficult to farm because of the various slopes and types of soil.
"Even if this were to go into production it would be a limited number of acres - the highest and best use seems to be a conservation use," said LaFave.
Commissioner Jeanne Ennen said that learning the land was not good for farming was important to know and made a difference in her decision.
When the issue was brought to a vote, Staples cast the lone dissenting vote.
- Staff and elected officials across Stevens County will be participating in an emergency operations training at Camp Ripley on January 28 and 29. Emergency Management Director Dona Greiner said the training will focus on emergency responses to a crude oil derailment or spill. Stevens County is the first county in the state to complete this training exercise.
- The board voted to move their Tuesday, Dec. 2 meeting to 4:30 p.m. The county will hold their annual Truth in Taxation hearing that evening at 7 p.m.