An 80-year-old clerical error has wiped out the state’s ownership of a popular area used for hiking, cross-country skiing and boat access to Rainy Lake near International Falls.
When the Polar Polers, a local ski club, recently began planning to enhance the Tilson Bay recreational area by building a boardwalk across a tamarack bog, they found a surprise when they checked the property records: The state had sold the land in 1935.
But whoever recorded the sale for Koochiching County back then failed to note the new owner in land records. And the buyer, a prominent International Falls businessman, apparently lost track of the purchase amid all his wheeling and dealing.
“It never occurred to anyone that this wasn’t state land,” said Matt Wappler, a forest manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Over the years, the state opened the land for hiking and cross-country skiing and built public boat access to Rainy Lake.
The 16-acre parcel is bisected by state Hwy. 11 and borders the Koochiching State Forest.
When the ownership issue was straightened out earlier this year, it turned out the parcel belonged to a descendant of Frank H. Keyes, a banker, developer and mayor of International Falls in the first half of the 20th century.
“They were doing a lot of business transactions back then,” said Pete Schultz, director of the International Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Could they have made a mistake that big, that long ago? It turns out they could.”
Schultz said the land is an “ideal” recreation area, with nice views of Rainy Lake and access to the hiking trail, ski trails and boat launch from a central parking area.
“It’s a wonderful little access area,” he said. “Our board of directors has discussed the situation, and certainly we’re hoping it can be resolved. We send people out to the hiking trail all the time, and it’s a nice one.”
Some local homeowners are concerned about potential development on the land, said Koochiching County Commissioner Wade Pavleck, who represents the area. They built homes assuming the adjoining state property would never be developed.
“Of course, I’m hearing from my constituents,” he said.
Michael Jaksa, a local attorney, said the assumption that the state owned the property was reinforced decades ago when Hwy. 11 was built. At the time officials held a condemnation hearing for the highway easement, they thought they were condemning the entire property, not just the easement.
“From then on, the state assumed it owned the land,” said Jaksa, who is handling the land case for the new owner, whose identity he didn’t reveal.
Even though the state no longer owns the land, most of the area could remain open to recreation, he said.
Jaksa said the new owner “is a nice person” who “has basically agreed to gift the area south of the highway to the state, which clears up any ski trail issue, and also opens up the probability of the boardwalk.”
The boat access on the north side of the highway also will remain open to the public, he said. But the land used for hiking on that side is likely to be sold.
“The north side has some really nice lots, valuable property,” Jaksa said. “But the loss of that hiking trail is more than made up for by the boardwalk trail on the south side of the road. The boardwalk will open up miles and miles of new trails for hikers and skiers. And I think the lake views on the south side will be at least equal to those on the north.
“This trade-off is best for the public and best for everybody,” he said. “So it looks like it’s all going to have a happy ending.”