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Cass Land Department report looks at costs

BACKUS — Cass County Land Department has successfully cut some routine expenses such as postage and phone service, but other costs such as electric and capital outlay for equipment and fixtures have risen.

The increases have occurred as Health, Human and Veterans Services (HHVS) has occupied more space in the land department building at Backus. Land Commissioner Joshua Stevenson said HHVS pays rent to the land department, offsetting those increases for the land department.

These were some of the changes evident in the land department’s 2013 annual report compiled by newly promoted Assistant Land Commissioner Kevin Dahlman.

Timber sales from county owned and managed land still account for close to half the department’s income, $1,356,809 of the $3,400,975 total.

Other funding for the land department comes from selling tax forfeited land and gravel, trails grants, Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund (LSOH) state grants to purchase land, payments in lieu of taxes, gas taxes, leases, easements and state aid, fees and trespass payments.

Timber sales receipts have declined about $200,000 each of the last two years, largely due to a decline in timber prices being paid for stumpage.

Stevenson considers aspen prices in the mid-$20s per cord range to be normal. That was the common price paid from 1995 to 1999. From there, prices rose until peaking at over $70 per cord in the 2004-05 winter. A sharp decline followed until prices hit below $30 in 2006-07 and have continued lower until average prices paid in 2013 hit about $22 per cord.

The land department has tried to offset some of the lost timber revenue by selling more non-strategic county land. This has not resulted in a net loss of county land, however, because LSOH state grants have enabled the county to purchase additional tracts, many of which had already been managed for timber production when Potlatch owned them.

Cass bought 176 acres of land using LSOH grant money in 1012 and 2013. These added acreages gave the county access to 840 acres of land it already held, but could not reach over public land previously. No county general fund money was used to purchase land.

Nearly half of the land department’s expenditures $1,396,809 of total $3,206,253 go into a tax forfeit distribution made annually to townships, cities and schools in jurisdictions where the county has sold timber that year and to reforestation, trails and the county general fund.

When timber prices peaked at over $70 per cord, the county was able to pay out nearly $250,000,000 the following year.

The county sold timber from 139 tracts in 2013 for an average value of $352.67 per acre or $11,081.04 per tract.

In 2013, Cass sold 33,504 cords of aspen, 14,727 cords of red oak, 12,799 cords of birch, 7,701 cords of maple, 4,233 cords of basswood, 2,531 cords of jack pine and less than 1,000 cords each of all other tree species. The county also sold 305,000 board feet of red and white pine saw logs, averaging about $112 per thousand board feet.

Cass County has a dedicated trust fund set aside to improve natural resources. The $4,124,700 fund was set aside from receipts the county obtained selling former state leased lots in about 2000.

The base fund must be maintained, but the county is allowed to use interest income received. In 2013, the county paid the preliminary engineering cost for the Pine River dam and replacing the boardwalk at Deep Portage from the $78,748.05 interest earned. Several smaller projects were also paid from this interest.

Land department staff issued 49 permits to private individuals to cut 490 cords of firewood on county land in 2013. They had grading done twice on Deerfield, Bull Moose-Bungo and Old Grade forest access roads.

The department worked with seven snowmobile, two all-terrain vehicle and one cross country ski club, channeling state funding to those clubs, which maintain recreational trails. The county also mows hunter, walking and horse trails.

There are 773 miles of county and state recreational trails in Cass.

Cass County Land Department has been certified annually since 2001 under the SmartWood program of the Forest Stewardship Council as maintaining its forests in an environmentally, economically and socially sound manner. An annual audit is required.

The department spent $73,862 in 2013 to have 25 miles of its land property lines surveyed. Once lines have been identified, “Welcome to Cass County Land” signs are posted.