A western Minnesota landowner who has been blocked from selling 80 acres of conservation land to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is suing Lac qui Parle County for objecting to the deal.
The proposed land transfer would double the size of the eastern unit of Baxter Wildlife Management Area near Dawson, Minn., but county commissioners rejected the transfer a year ago. Board members said Lac qui Parle County’s property tax base already includes too much public land — a concern shared by other county boards in the state.
But in a lawsuit filed recently in Lac qui Parle County District Court, landowner Phil Sonstegard said the county was acting small. Commissioners failed to consider state goals and mandates, including conservation of wildlife habitat and acquisition of land for public hunting, his lawsuit contends.
According to the complaint, a state law requires that land sales to the DNR be approved by the respective county board. But the lawsuit alleges that such reviews are designed for counties to consider local concerns only when they outweigh state policies. The review authority does not give the county “unlimited veto power,’’ according to the suit.
The Sonstegard land case and a similarly contested purchase agreement for the DNR to expand its Gollnick Wildlife Management Area in Lac qui Parle County has received close attention from DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen. Last month at a statewide meeting of hunters, anglers, DNR staff and other outdoors stakeholders, Strommen said the agency could possibly overpower the board in Lac qui Parle County to get a short-term victory.
But she said the agency prefers to take a long-term approach to achieve strategic land acquisitions without alienating potential partners in conservation. Ron Frauenshuh Jr., the attorney for Sonstegard, said the DNR didn’t get in the way of the lawsuit but has chosen to work behind the scenes. He said the underlying problem is that the law giving counties review power over land sales to the DNR needs clarifying by the Legislature.
“It’s very confusing to both the counties and the DNR,’’ Frauenshuh said.
The Sonstegard family is in the turkey-production business and agreed to sell land to the DNR because the property is great hunting land but poor for growing crops, Frauenshuh said. The DNR offered the best price, he said, and the lawsuit is just a mechanism “to get the sale done.
“He’s not criticizing the county and not calling anybody names,’’ the attorney said of his client.
Frauenshuh said negotiations are taking place and there’s a chance the lawsuit can be resolved.
Lac qui Parle County Commissioner Todd Patzer didn’t comment on the lawsuit, but he said the county and DNR are trying to reach a mutual understanding. “I think there is room for compromise,’’ he said.
Patzer said the county said no to both land deals because there is a belief that a plethora of conservation projects have removed too much farmland from production. “It’s just kind of a tipping point,’’ Patzer said. “Agriculture is our life blood in Lac qui Parle County.’’
Dave Trauba, DNR regional wildlife manager in New Ulm, said the Sonstegard land would be incorporated into a two-part wildlife management area of about 350 acres. It would add to an important mosaic of wetland and former cropland set aside as wildlife habitat, replacing lost prairie.
The DNR was on record last year as saying that 94% of the land base in Lac qui Parle County is in private ownership, 4% in state ownership and 2% in federal ownership. “In my view, there’s plenty of room left in Lac qui Parle County for agriculture and conservation,” DNR wildlife manager Curt Vacek of Appleton told the commissioners.
He also said there’s value to the county in expanding its public lands to strengthen recreational opportunities for drawing visitors and raising families. Moreover, conservation lands managed by the DNR help to abate surface water pollution and drinking water pollution in agricultural zones. Finally, the state makes annual land payments to counties in lieu of lost property taxes.
Trauba said the Sonstegard land has received the most attention, but Lac qui Parle County also has said no to the DNR’s purchase agreement with landowner James Wodrich for 150 acres that includes a large area of native sod.
The tract would expand the 520-acre Gollnick Wildlife Management Area, a core area for “wet prairie’’ conservation located 4 miles east of Marietta.
“We don’t acquire wildlife management areas on a whim,’’ Trauba said. “They are strategic, vetted out … we turn down a lot of land parcels that come to our attention.’’