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Land debate takes center stage: Despite DNR request, Lac qui Parle County not inclined to add more public land

MADISON, Minn. -- Lac qui Parle County is one of western Minnesota’s best known recreational destinations, thanks to its public lands.

A state park and the adjoining Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area attracts thousands of visitors from around the state, many of them hunters and anglers.

The county is now in the midst of a debate over public lands. While the county board of commissioners has not adopted a “no net gain” policy, the members are voicing concerns about adding any new public lands.

“I think the board’s concern is basically there is enough land already in public ownership in Lac qui Parle County and that these acquisitions are just generally not in the collective, long-term best interests of the county,” county commissioner Todd Patzer told the Tribune.

The issue came to the forefront on Dec. 18 and returns to the board of commissioners next Tuesday. Curt Vacek, Appleton area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, asked the commissioners to approve a proposed land acquisition of 80 acres that would become part of the Baxter Wildlife Management Area in section 4 of Baxter Township.

Landowner Phil Sonstegard, of Jo’s Family Farms LLC and Sonstegard Foods Company, Inc., of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is offering to sell the land to the DNR. It includes 18.5 acres of wetland. Vacek said the landowner told him the 59 acres he put into row crop- all sandy loam land - doesn’t pencil out economically for agricultural production. The DNR would plant it to grasses and forbs.

It would provide additional public hunting land and importantly, the perennial cover would help address water quality and water retention issues in the county, said Vacek. It’s part of the Lac qui Parle River watershed, where water quality is listed as degraded.

The estimated market value of the land in 2018 was $259,400, and it paid property taxes of $1,556. If acquired by the DNR, the county would receive $1,945.50 in payments in lieu of taxes.

With all of this on the table, Vacek said he was hopeful of winning support for the acquisition, as had been the case with similar proposals. But a motion at that Dec. 18 meeting by now retired commissioner Terry Overlander to approve the acquisition failed on a 4-1 vote.

It’s believed that state statute requires an up or down vote, and so Vacek is bringing the proposed acquisition back to the commissioners on Tuesday. He will also be asking for approval for a separate, unrelated acquisition of 158 acres to be added to the Gollnick Wildlife Management Area in section one of Mehurin Township. Again,an annual payment in lieu of taxes of $1,533.39 would exceed the current paid taxes of $1,079. The land is not currently farmed.

If the commissioners deny the acquisitions, the DNR and landowners have the option of bringing the denial to the district court and the State of Minnesota Land Exchange Board. If that is necessary, Vacek said he is hopeful the acquisitions would be approved.

He said he’s enjoyed a good relationship with the commissioners. He’s hoping to visit individually with them prior to Tuesday to explain the benefits of the acquisition.

He worries that some of the apparent rift may relate to previous action by the DNR voicing its concerns about a redetermination of record made by the county for County Ditch 24. The new redetermination lowers the base of the ditch channel and ultimately could lead to the partial if not complete drainage of three public waters in the western part of the county, Vacek said.

At the Dec. 18 meeting, the commissioners raised a number of issues, including what they said was a need by young farmers for land.

Vacek pointed out that this land was not profitable for a well-established farmer. He also emphasized that his office only considers lands offered by landowners, and where a conservation purpose is believed the best use.

“Everything we’re buying right now, they are coming to us and saying this looks like a perfect fit for you,” Vacek said.

In the case of the proposed addition to the Golnick WMA to be considered on Tuesday, the DNR purposely did not pursue a portion of the property offered it so that a neighboring landowner can acquire it for grazing, he pointed out.

In making his motion in favor of the acquisition at the Dec. 18 meeting, retired commissioner Overlander cited the right of landowners to sell their land to a party of their choosing.

“I get that argument,” Patzer said. “I respect that, believe in landowner rights.

(We) have to weigh the best outcome for the people of the county. Private ownership is in the best long term interest of the county in my opinion.”

He said he and others on the board support conservation, are sportsmen, and appreciate the economic benefits that hunting and fishing provides the county. But he said that in his opinion, the recreational dollars don’t compare to land producing for private owners in an agriculture or commercial setting or whatever might come along in the future that we don’t understand yet.

He said he’d be more open to consider easements for specified lengths of time, but has concerns about permanent acquisitions.

At their Dec. 18 meeting, the commissioners also noted that they were aware that their decision is not the final one. The Land Exchange Board could approve the acquisition.

Vacek said the DNR is required to bring proposed acquisitions to the local county for approval. Land purchased by individuals or organizations, such as Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited, do not need that approval, even if ultimately turned over to public ownership.

The debate has played out some on the letters to the editor page of the Western Guard newspaper, with both support and opposition voiced. Two letters have complained of “land grubbing” by the state and conservation organizations, and the importance of tax paying land. Two others have cited the importance of conservation and giving youth access to outdoor activities, and the value of hunting dollars to local businesses.