Guest Opinion: Potential conflict on lands acquired for the Mississippi River Northwoods Project

When Minnesotans voted in 2008 to amend the state constitution by imposing a three-eighths of one percent sales tax on themselves for the next 25 years, they did so believing it would enhance and protect Minnesota's great outdoor quality of life ...

When Minnesotans voted in 2008 to amend the state constitution by imposing a three-eighths of one percent sales tax on themselves for the next 25 years, they did so believing it would enhance and protect Minnesota's great outdoor quality of life for this and future generations.

And it's working.

The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment that passed has done much to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests and related fish and wildlife habitat. It's done much for clean water, parks and trails, and arts and our cultural heritage, too.

Yet, unfortunately, this funding mechanism is now under the microscope in Crow Wing County. That's because a number of people in the conservation and legislative community believe the possible creation of a destination/designated All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) trail system within the new Mississippi River Northwoods project area (formerly Potlatch land in between the airport and landfill) is an inappropriate use. This contention is based on the fact that most of this 2,000-plus acre tract was acquired with Legacy funds appropriated for habitat conservation.

I completely agree. Here's why.


The majority of the land in question, which includes more than two miles of Mississippi River shoreline, was purchased from the Potlatch Corporation with sales tax dollars allocated to the Outdoor Heritage Fund part of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy amendment. This fund has a singular constitutional and state statute (MN Statute 97A.056) purpose: " restore, protect or enhance wetland, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife." Outdoor Heritage Funds funds, by law, cannot be used for other purposes. The Legacy Amendment's three other funds - Clean Water; Parks and Trails; and Arts and Cultural Heritage - can also only be used for their intended purposes. Pretty simple, pretty clear.

And yet Crow Wing County as current land administrator has accepted an application to create a 20-plus mile destination/designated ATV trail system on this Outdoor Heritage Fund-acquired land. That's clearly inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the funding source for this acquisition. I should know. I have been actively engaged in protection ideas for this land since the mid-2000s. In fact, the initial and successful funding request for this acquisition was titled, "Mississippi River Northwoods - Protect High Priority Habitat Complex." This proposal and other pertinent information for this funding source and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) that reviewed and made recommendations on projects can be found at .

So how did we get here?

We got here because those who supported this habitat project believed Crow Wing County was in the best position to ultimately administer and manage the land, in part, because they administer and manage much of the nearby land. There's government efficiency in that. Yet less than two years after receiving this land, the county is entertaining the idea of creating a destination/designated ATV trail system on land purchased with habitat conservation funds.

The appropriateness of this proposal has recently generated stories in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Brainerd Dispatch. It has raised serious concerns from original project sponsors, supporters, LSOHC members, and politicians.

I am not opposed to ATV trail systems. I own an ATV. As a DNR wildlife manager I was part of the DNR's effort a number of years ago to inventory, design and designate motorized access on state forest lands in the Brainerd area. And I support tourism. I'm merely making the point that land purchased for habitat conservation from a dedicated habitat conservation source should not be the same land on which an ATV trail system is designated, mapped, and noted as a destination point for that type of use.

Yes this former Potlatch parcel was open to a lot of incidental uses (hiking, hunting, ATV use, etc.) up until it was leased for private use in the mid-2000s. However now it has been acquired with a funding source that has a specific habitat conservation intent. Trail groups were told many times to bring acquisition dollars to the project to help offset part of the $11 million acquisition cost and thereby receive a legitimate right for such uses on this property. They didn't, complete acquisition cost came from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

The primary question of "What's next" needs to also be asked if this current proposal keeps moving forward (i.e. mud trucks, expanded use of XC motorcycles from adjacent County systems, etc.). Where does it end?



This piece of property was a gift from the citizen's of Minnesota entrusted to Crow Wing County for its management. Because of that trust, Crow Wing County should hit the pause button on the current single use ATV trail system proposal and take the time to have discussions on fund integrity, intended uses and impacts. This would hopefully then lead to a comprehensive access plan that would frame appropriate uses now and into the future. A solution may be difficult, but for the sake of this project and other protection efforts in the future it needs to be undertaken.

The Legacy Amendment and related, dedicated funds have been good for Minnesota. Together, we need to keep it that way. We can do that by making sure that funds are used for their intended purpose.

Gary Drotts was with the DNR for 39 years, retired as area wildlife manager in 2013, long-time resident of Crow Wing County.

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