Hunters and others can continue to access 286,000 acres, but a long-term agreement is needed.
Virtually on the eve of firearms deer hunting, a complex land access problem across much of northeast Minnesota has been solved. For now.
Minnesota Rep. Dave Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Thursday they've reached agreement with Molpus Woodlands Group, the state's largest private landowner, to allow traditional access to its properties until at least the end of the 2013 legislative session.
Molpus, of Jackson, Miss., purchased 286,000 acres of northern Minnesota forest land last summer from Forest Capital Partners, an East Coast investment group.
At the heart of the access conflict is a dispute between Molpus and the state over taxes and other fees. For Molpus, the declining market for stumpage also plays a role, as do costs of maintaining tote roads and other accesses to its property -- much of which has been treated like public land for generations, not only by hunters, but by hikers, snowmobilers, backwoods cabin owners and ATV riders.
Already, Molpus has erected -- but hasn't yet closed -- about 16 gates across a huge checkerboard of its lands, mostly in Koochiching and St. Louis counties.
Much of the property is in a contiguous block. But much also is intermixed with federal, state and other land. So blocking access to property owned by one in many cases means blocking access to lands held by others, including owners of hunting camps and seasonal homes.
"Resort businesses are at stake, too,'' Dill said, because snowmobile trails connecting much of the northeast exist in part due to easements granted by Molpus.
If the problem can't be fixed, "it will be the end of northern Minnesota snowmobiling as we know it,'' Bill Congdon, of Orr, has said.
The conflict's origins can be traced to a decision by the Legislature in 2010 to cap payments made under the state's Sustainable Forestry Incentives Act (SFIA), at $100,000.
Under the measure, landowners are paid between $7 and $13 an acre to keep their properties open to logging, manage them sustainability and allow public access.
The program reflects the state's vested interest in retaining large tracts of forest land. Recrea-tion benefits by the continued existence of these properties. Loggers also benefit, as do various trees and plants. And many wildlife species thrive in relatively undivided land blocks.
But the state's need for cash was paramount when it capped the SFIA payments, breaking a deal, as it did, with large landowners and costing Forest Capital more than $2 million a year.
Subsequently, Forest Capital sued, winning in a lower court but losing on appeal.
All along, the company reminded lawmakers that its properties were kept open to the public because of their enrollment in the SFIA. Absent such an agreement, the company said, access might be denied.
Molpus followed through on that threat a few weeks ago when it set up gates on some key woodland pathways in the northeast, including popular Sheep Ranch Road near Orr.
"We'll still allow foot travel and ATV travel,'' Craig Halla said at the time. "But vehicle traffic won't be allowed.'' Halla, of International Falls, manages the Molpus properties.
In reaching their agreement with Molpus, Dill and Bakk hope the Legislature can appease the big land company.
One way would be to lift the cap on SFIA payments, a move that could cost the state $5 million or more by the time other large landowners also are paid their higher fees.
Another possibility is to change the property tax rate for large property owners. The problem there is that any reduction for one taxpayer could mean greater amounts paid by others.
Purchase of a conservation easement on the lands also is possible, similar to the $44 million working forest conservation easement agreed to a few years back between the state and Blandin Paper Co (UPM).
Legacy Act funds, recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and approved by the Legislature, covered $34.25 million of that purchase.
Fundamentally, however, before any deals with Molpus are considered by the Legislature, Bakk, Dill and other supporters of maintaining access to the lands must develop, in detail, a cost-benefit analysis.
Additionally, any attempt by legislators to push aside conservation, habitat and other project recommendations already made by the Lessard-Sams Council for its next funding cycle will provoke a fight that won't benefit anyone.
But all that for another day.
For now, the lands are open, as they always have been.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org
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