A project seeking to conserve hundreds of acres of Crow Wing County forest is back on track after a compromise allowing for the possibility of future motorized trail development.

County commissioners Tuesday, Nov. 24, unanimously approved a resolution supporting acquisition of 360 acres of forestland by The Conservation Fund, land that would in turn be donated to Crow Wing County. The parcels previously owned by PotlatchDeltic (formerly Potlatch Corp.) — the majority of which are located in Timothy Township near the Whitefish Chain of Lakes — are adjacent to existing county forests.

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But it took some convincing for the Crow Wing County Board, some members of which were initially put off by the original proposal’s ban on any new trails on the properties. In June, commissioners tabled the acquisition in favor of seeking a “no net gain” compromise from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council allowing the county to build new trails if it removed an equal length of trail elsewhere. The land acquisition is funded in part by a grant from that council, which makes funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature for use of tax dollars collected in the Outdoor Heritage Fund as part of the 2008 Legacy Amendment.

In August, the council discussed the county’s request at length, ultimately agreeing to the amendment in a 7-4 vote. This was a departure from one of the county’s recent dealings with Lessard-Sams, when a major dustup in 2016 over a motorized trail proposal on another council-funded property nearly landed both bodies in court.

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Crow Wing County Board Chairman Steve Barrows (bottom left) shares his thoughts on a land acquisition during the Nov. 17 committee of the whole meeting. Also pictured as part of the Microsoft Teams virtual meeting are Todd Holman (top left), coordinator of the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscape program; Ryan Simonson, Crow Wing County environmental services supervisor; Emilee Nelson (right), Minnesota associate in conservation acquisition with The Conservation Fund; and Kim Berns-Melhus, Minnesota state director of The Conservation Fund. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Crow Wing County Board Chairman Steve Barrows (bottom left) shares his thoughts on a land acquisition during the Nov. 17 committee of the whole meeting. Also pictured as part of the Microsoft Teams virtual meeting are Todd Holman (top left), coordinator of the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscape program; Ryan Simonson, Crow Wing County environmental services supervisor; Emilee Nelson (right), Minnesota associate in conservation acquisition with The Conservation Fund; and Kim Berns-Melhus, Minnesota state director of The Conservation Fund. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

“We did end up in quite a dispute (in 2016). I am pretty confident in saying, had that Lessard-Sams board been the one that you approached, I’m not sure you would’ve gotten your seven to four vote,” said County Administrator Tim Houle during a discussion of the project at the board’s committee of the whole meeting Nov. 17. “I do think that this is helping other northern Minnesota counties that have lots of recreational trail concerns because it is a softening of their language. What remains to be seen … is whether that degree of flexibility will allow us to do pretty much everything we wanted to do anyway. I think it will.”

While there are no trail proposals for those properties at this time, the compromise means the county could consider one in the future. The acreage in Timothy Township, along with another 40 acres in Crow Wing Township, were both identified by land services in 2018 as high-priority acquisitions in light of PotlatchDeltic’s push to divest itself from Minnesota land ownership.

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Emilee Nelson, Minnesota associate in conservation acquisition with The Conservation Fund, told the board Nov. 17 the project also has the support of the Timothy Township Board and the Ideal Sno Pros, which manages a snowmobile trail in the same area as the Potlatch property. An analysis of the property’s potential timber revenue by Ryan Simonson, environmental services supervisor with the county, showed it could garner about $180,000 in timber sales over a period of 45 years.

“I think everybody could probably agree this is a great acquisition that fits within to help consolidate county lands,” Simonson said. “The real question is the strings that are attached. Is that worth it to acquire through these grant funds?”

Discussion

There was no discussion Tuesday as the board approved the resolution as part of its consent agenda. A lengthy conversation took place instead at the committee of the whole meeting a week earlier on Nov. 17. In introducing the topic, Houle noted a number of similar proposals have recently been met with resistance from the board. He said while staff felt they were operating within the board’s wishes to consolidate and improve access to county forestland, he felt that needed clarification.

“I’m not sure if we are bringing you projects that are consistent with your wishes today,” Houle said. “We’ve brought you a number of acquisition properties recently that you have rejected, and the primary reason for the rejection is usually that there’s some string attached. … That’s OK. It’s OK if you want to tell us that if an acquisition is going to have a recreational trail requirement that it be posted as not allowed, then we’re not interested. …

“As long as we’re using someone else’s money to purchase it, there’s going to continue to be strings, whether it’s this one or a different one. If we don’t want there to be any strings, we can insulate ourselves from that by using our money. That obviously isn’t always the most attractive either.”

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Previously, Houle estimated purchasing the properties in question would run the county approximately $2 million.

Commissioner Paul Koering, attending the Nov. 17 meeting virtually, said he hadn’t changed his mind about consolidating county lands. But he also said he had a problem with outside funding sources dictating how Crow Wing County’s lands are managed, and in those cases, he’ll vote no every single time.

“What I have a problem with is these groups that keep coming at us that are going around and buying this property but then coming to us and stipulating how we’re going to manage our property,” Koering said. “ … I have the right to say how Crow Wing County is managed and the five county commissioners do. … It almost makes it sound like they’re smarter than us, they know how to manage the property better than us.”

Todd Holman, who coordinates the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscape program of which the acquisitions are part, clarified The Conservation Fund is a transaction agent between PotlatchDeltic and Crow Wing County.

“In 2018 we got pretty strong support from the county that acquiring not just random parcels, but parcels that they have identified, that the county had identified, as priority acquisitions for the county,” Holman said. “ … We kind of took a direction that yes, in fact, we could pursue funding for those tracts because we were in line with what the county’s overall larger objectives were.”

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Kim Berns-Melhus, Minnesota state director of The Conservation Fund, said she echoed Holman’s thoughts.

“We do not go out and buy land just to buy land,” Berns-Melhus said. “ … We buy the land at the request of the county.”

Chairman Steve Barrows said when it comes to land asset management and recreational goals for the county, one isn’t more important than the other.

“I believe that this whole process is about when boards change, as time moves on, and they see that there’s benefits that counties need to have in managing their properties,” Barrows said. “ … It’s taken four years, five years … for that board, Lessard-Sams board, to change how they look at things, and to get a vote of 7-4 shows that with the patience and coming with the right proposal, we can get something that we want. And I believe we’ll get more as time goes on.”

Commissioner Bill Brekken said if the property were to go into private hands, snowmobile clubs could lose access to trails in the area.

Commissioner Doug Houge, who spoke against the trail restrictions in June, said he was pleased with the results of returning to Lessard-Sams with a compromise.

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“I want to thank Emily and Kim for actually taking these no net gain suggestion forward, and in this case, it was received well by the committees down in the metro,” Houge said. “And it’s just an absolute win-win both for forest management and the recreational opportunities in Crow Wing County. So I think it was a great first step, and hopefully in the future, we still have these type of opportunities moving forward.”

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said she was still hesitant, given previous experience with Lessard-Sams concerning the 2,000-acre Mississippi River Northwoods property four years ago. She said she felt like the county was misled then, and she doesn’t want that to happen again.

“I’m very protective of the parks and trails in the area, and I don’t want to ever have to end up in court because we’ve been told something,” Franzen said. “ … There are a lot of people who use these trails all the time, it’s part of our recreation. You can’t just have a 300-acre parcel and all of a sudden they say, ‘Oh, you can’t go through here,’ and the other part of the trail is on the other side. As long as we are guaranteed in an ironclad guarantee … I’m sure I’ll vote for it but I have reservations.”

Houle said the language would be included in the grant agreement, but he couldn’t promise “ironclad.”

“I can give you, we will make sure it’s in the agreement and then I think if that did come to it, that is an issue you’d want to fight,” Houle said.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.