Prime piece of land north of Brainerd is in line to be preserved

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2012 - 8:13 PM

Minnesota has a chance, if politicians don't bungle it, to buy the 2,000 acres on the Mississippi River and virtually in the middle of the state's most popular recreation area.

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The miles-long undeveloped shoreline of the Mississippi River that conservationists hope to preserve north of Brainerd lies to the left of this photo, which looks downriver. The 2,000-acre plot has been offered for sale to the state by Potlatch Corp. for its appraised value of $14 million, which would be paid from Legacy funds.

Photo: Chris Stockness, Shenehon Company

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The Legislature soon will consider preserving what might be the largest and best available parcel of land for sale in the state -- and among supporters of the idea are bass, northerns, bluegills and crappies, also mallards, blue-winged teal and other ducks, and bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks, Blanding's turtles and brook trout.

Called the Mississippi Northwoods project, the 2,000-acre plot just north of Brainerd encompasses nearly 3 miles of undeveloped Mississippi River shoreline.

Now owned by Potlatch Corp., the timberland management giant, the property's purchase has been recommended to lawmakers by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Price: $14 million paid from the Legacy Act's Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Lying virtually in the middle of Minnesota's most popular recreation area, Mississippi Northwoods presents an opportunity unlike any in recent memory.

Some of the state's best smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing are available along its wildernesslike shoreline.

Waters abutting it and the wild rice they cultivate attract nesting ducks in spring and summer, and migrants in fall.

Deer and grouse also abound.

"I love that property," said Jim Kalkofen, who lives in Brainerd. "On it or near it you've got a chance to see just about anything that's wild that lives in Minnesota."

Ten years have passed since the state Department of Natural Resources first identified Mississippi Northwoods as a potential acquisition. Situated between two other tracts of county land, and nearly touching the Cuyuna State Recreation Area, the parcel presented a rare opportunity to set aside a block of public land benefiting not only fish and wildlife but recreational users.

Problem was, 10 years ago, Potlatch wasn't selling. And neither the DNR nor nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy or the Trust for Public Land had the millions needed if it could be bought.

Then, last year, Potlatch told representatives from the Trust for Public Land it would consider selling.

"Potlatch had been looking to develop the property," said Susan Schmidt, executive director of the Trust for Public Land in Minnesota. "But after passage of the Legacy Act, and at least the possibility of securing money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund for its purchase, we went back to Potlatch and asked if they would reconsider, and they did."

One caveat: The sale had to be completed by the end of 2012.

Enter the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which last year approved the property's purchase at its appraised value of $14 million. (A second appraisal is planned. By law, the state can't purchase land for more than its appraised value.)

Not all council members were on board.

Ryan Bronson, who hadn't toured the site, called it a "piece of land between a dump and an airport," while Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, echoed his party's reservations about purchasing land for public ownership, fearing a loss of property tax income to counties.

This last is often a red herring.

Studies have shown that in many instances, the amount of PILT -- payment in lieu of taxes -- paid by the state to counties to recoup lost property taxes is greater than the original amount counties extracted from private landowners.

Still, following the council's purchase approval, Schmidt asked the Crow Wing County Board whether it would consider owning the land -- making moot the property tax issue -- and it voted unanimously in favor.

Potlatch paid about $26,000 in taxes on the property in 2011.

Yet hurdles remain.

At the council's most recent meeting, McNamara said that Schmidt would present a new option for the property's purchase. Rather than $14 million, McNamara said, Schmidt and the Trust for Public Land believe they could get by with only $12 million from the Outdoors Heritage Fund -- with the remaining $2 million coming from as-yet-unknown state, federal or other sources wanting to put a bike and snowmobile trail through the property.

The trail would connect the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, which starts near Crosby, with the popular Paul Bunyan Trail.

The lower number, McNamara said, would free up money for the state's nascent fight against invasive species, not least Asian carp coming up the Mississippi.

The council rebuffed the $12 million proposal -- even though McNamara hinted strongly he might make the reduction in his committee.

One of three outcomes is possible:

• Least likely is that the Legislature (which doesn't have to accept the Lessard-Sams council's recommendations) nixes the purchase outright. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is a council member and McNamara's counterpart in the Senate, and his committee approved the project last week. Similarly, the DNR is on board, as are virtually all of the state's conservation and environmental groups.

• Second-least likely, though possible, is that the Legislature follows McNamara's lead and approves only $12 million for the purchase, sending supporters scrambling for the additional $2 million needed to make the purchase before the end of the year.

• Most likely -- though not a shoo-in -- is that $14 million will be approved for the project, thus giving supporters some breathing room in the short term, with $2 million coming back to the council and the Outdoor Heritage Fund when the trail sale eventually is made, likely in a year or two.

"There is a lot of support in the Brainerd area for a trail to complete that regional system, and I'm sure one will eventually be built," Schmidt said.

For its work, the Trust for Public Land typically is paid a fee by the property seller. Usually 7-10 percent, the fee in this case will be 4 percent.

"We'll see what the Legislature does,'' Schmidt said. ''Meanwhile, we'll be working like mad to get the deal done one way or another.

"This is a virtually unspoiled piece of land. You don't get this opportunity very often."

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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