Crow Wing County: Middle ground on conservation land?

A tentative compromise is on the table concerning the Mississippi River Northwoods property. The Crow Wing County Board will consider closing undesignated trails on the parcel at its Feb. 14 meeting, limiting off-highway vehicles to the multi-use...

A tentative compromise is on the table concerning the Mississippi River Northwoods property.

The Crow Wing County Board will consider closing undesignated trails on the parcel at its Feb. 14 meeting, limiting off-highway vehicles to the multi-use trail system approved last year. If approved, the limited designation would differ from the policy on most of the county's 105,000 acres of forestland, on which motorized use is allowed unless posted closed.

"The spirit in which the parties came together was to find a middle ground where everybody could be satisfied; that going forward, there's some solutions to these kinds of things without getting into a dispute," said Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede, who attended the meeting at which the compromise was drafted, when reached by phone Thursday.

The potential compromise comes amid an ongoing conversation over the legality of the county's actions concerning the property. Acquired from the Potlatch Corporation with dollars from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Mississippi River Northwoods property is 2,000 acres nestled between the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and the Crow Wing County Landfill. It contains 2.7 miles of river shoreline and combined with adjacent properties, the land acquisition shielded more than 9 miles of contiguous Mississippi River shoreline from development.

Conflict over the county board's approval of the trail system-pursued by local all-terrain vehicle club Cuyuna Iron Range Riders-heated up last year when the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council explored potential legal action against the county.


Council members argued Crow Wing County acted in defiance of the state constitution by allowing ATVs on land intended for conservation. Crow Wing County officials maintained they were clear about how the land would be managed from the beginning, including potential trail designation.

In a Jan. 23 letter to Doug Houge, Crow Wing County Board chairman, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr outlined elements of a resolution reached at a Dec. 15, 2016, meeting. Attending the meeting were representatives from Crow Wing County, the DNR, the ATV Association of Minnesota and local ATV clubs.

In addition to consideration of the "limited" designation for trails, the compromise also includes eliminating a proposed picnic area, clarifying the nature of the parking area as a logging landing area and revision of a grant-in-aid application for dollars from the DNR's Off-Highway Vehicle Trails Assistance Program to reflect those changes.

In return, county officials want a previously stalled land exchange to "proceed expeditiously." The exchange concerns a portion of the Northwoods property closest to the airport runway for state land adjacent to both the property and Highway 210. The Lessard-Sams council halted that exchange, pending a resolution over the trail concerns.

"Together, I believe these points of agreement constitute a reasonable resolution to the concerns related to the appropriate use of lands purchased with Outdoor Heritage Funds," Landwehr wrote in his letter. "I believe resolving this issue paves the way for continued state-county collaboration on future projects."

Thiede expressed concern about the long-term implications of the proposed compromise. As it stands, counties can assign their own designations to county-owned lands: whether open to all motorized use, limited to posted areas only or closed. This can differ from adjacent state-owned lands.

"I agreed that I believe this is a compromise because of the unique circumstances of how we arrived where we are at," Thiede said. "My concern is this is a precedent-setting thing that overrules the county option to do something different than the DNR."

A second letter written by Landwehr to Bob Anderson, chairman of the Lessard-Sams council, discussed the meeting and its outcome. Landwehr also addressed the legal maneuvering, which became the DNR's purview when Lessard-Sams staff sought legal advice on how to proceed. It was determined the council could not take direct legal action, but must instead request it of the DNR, the holder of the Outdoor Heritage Fund grant agreements.


Landwehr explained the DNR was advised it cannot take legal action in the matter, either.

"I asked DNR general counsel to review DNR's authority with respect to this matter," Landwehr wrote. "The conclusion of our general counsel is that DNR has no clear authority to initiate legal action on behalf of the LSOHC (Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council) or to enforce the terms of the Outdoor Heritage Fund accomplishment plan for the Mississippi Northwoods.
"Your letter correctly notes that DNR is the holder of OHF (Outdoor Heritage Fund) grants agreements, however, that particular grant agreement is now closed, meaning Crow Wing County has no further obligations to the DNR."

Landwehr said the circumstance has raised questions about how to enforce accomplishment plan obligations in the long term.

"I would be happy to work with you and the Legislature on a clarification," Landwehr wrote.

Terms of a compromise must be approved by the county board. The Lessard-Sams council has not met since the proposed compromise was drafted, and will not meet until the end of April. Calls to two members of the council for comment were not returned Thursday.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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