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DNR commissioner delivers update to Crow Wing County Board

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr (left) with state DNR Northeast Regional Director Patty Thielen by his side chats Tuesday, Nov. 20, with Commissioners Doug Houge, Paul Thiede, Rosemary Franzen and Rachel Reabe Nystrom at the committee of the whole meeting in Brainerd. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Tom Landwehr2 / 2

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr traded the city streets of St. Paul for the roads of Crow Wing County to chat with local county officials.

The county includes over 400 lakes and 75 rivers. The county commissioners said they appreciated talking about the county's natural resources with Landwehr at the Tuesday, Nov. 20, committee of the whole meeting.

"This is way overdue," Landwehr said at the board's monthly information-only meeting. "I like to get out and visit with county boards ... and I appreciate when we can work as collaboratively as possible just to sort of maximize the return for the taxpayers and so on."

DNR-administered lands in the county total about 42,240 acres, of which 9,810 acres are parks and trails, 23,971 acres are school trust, 558 acres are forestry and 6,702 acres are fish and wildlife, according to DNR Northeast Region Director Patty Thielen.

The state parks in the county average more than 145,000 visitors annually. The county has two state forests: Crow Wing State Forest and the Emily State Forest.

Mille Lacs Lake

The DNR notes on its website state-managed public lands are the backbone of outdoor recreation and tourism, and contribute to the state's economy.

"Do you have any update on Mille Lacs?" Commissioner Doug Houge asked Landwehr and Thielen.

Landwehr said, "Much of what we know about Mille Lacs is on information that we gather in the fall, so we did what we call fall assessments in October. It's a bunch of test netting that goes on ... and the good news is the number of sort of catchable fish has tripled in one year."

Minnesota's second-largest lake covers 207 square miles. A estimate completed in 2018 shows an abundant smallmouth population of 67,000 adult fish in the fishery, according to the DNR.

"Think of fish populations like schools. ... We just had a bunch of fish move from middle school to high school, we just had a strong year class '13, so we had a bunch of really small classes where there was way-below-average production," Landwehr said.

"But '13 was a good year for us, it was above-average year or class, so we have been waiting for that population of fish to get into the breeding size for the future. It takes four years for the female walleyes to come into maturity, so that '13 class really came into maturity last year."

Pequot Lakes fire tower

The county recently purchased the historic Pequot Lakes fire tower from the DNR. The fire tower was built in 1934 and was initially closed last year due to vandalism and misuse. Windows have repeatedly been broken in the cab with equipment thrown from the top of the tower.

"We've got the ongoing aquatic invasive species issues, of course, in the state parks ... but I'm very happy that we have just been able to unload a 'real problem' for us—that was a fire tower—onto Crow Wing County, and I'm so excited about that prospect," Landwehr said with a laugh.

The 100-foot-tall fire tower was added last year to the National Register of Historic Places and has been on the National Historic Lookout Register since 1993. The tower is on a 40-acre parcel of land, which was also included in the recent purchase of the tower for a dollar.

"The good news is that we got it done and appreciate the county's interest in that. I do think that it'll be pretty fun to see that in operation and another thing for people in the area to go visit while they're up fishing," Landwehr said.

Improvements are planned with the support of local community organizations, donations and county park dollars. The Pequot Lakes Historical Society, the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association and many local units of government have shown support for the tower.

"I don't presume that we aren't ever going to have issues. I expect we always will to some extent, but the county's sort of mandates and the state's mandates, while they're very consistent they often times aren't exactly the same. We do have a few issues periodically," Landwehr said.

County Commissioner Paul Thiede represents the area where the fire tower is located and suggested earlier the area around the fire tower could become a public park or the site of a fire suppression museum.

"I do hope, by having these kinds of discussions in advance of an issue, it will really open up the lines of communication as to resolve things as beneficially as possible," Landwehr told Thiede.

State lands

The DNR manages 5.6 million acres statewide, including state parks, wildlife management areas, state forests and trails. Shoreland areas are defined and regulated differently by various entities.

The areas provide a crucial buffer to the lake or stream ecosystem and can negatively impact water quality and fish and wildlife habitat in some cases. In general, the DNR has jurisdiction for any activities below the ordinary high water level.

Other DNR highlights discussed by Landwehr included land acquisitions with help from external partners such as the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation and The Nature Conservancy and the launching of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area with its mountain bike state trails.

State-managed public lands are supported by payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, to counties. In 2018, these amounted to $587,712 in Crow Wing County, according to Thielen.

"The PILT payment is generally based on the value of the land, and for the first five years after we acquire it, it's based on the purchase price. After that, it's based on what the assessed value is from the county assessor," Landwehr said.

"I always tell county boards that we're very supportive of payment in lieu of taxes. We understand taking land off of the tax rolls can have an impact on the counties, and we want to make sure the counties are able to provide the services."