VIRGINIA, MINN. – St. Louis County has a new land and minerals director. Julie Marinucci took over the role and a staff of more than 50 in June following the retirement of Mark Weber. She's the first woman to hold the job and oversees nearly 1 million acres of tax-forfeited land and an abundance of mineral wealth.

The 41-year-old Chisholm, Minn., native and Michigan Tech graduate started with the county in 2018 as a mineral development specialist after working for Cleveland-Cliffs and SEH. She was most recently deputy director of the department.

Marinucci sat down with the Star Tribune in Virginia recently to talk about the work her office does. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to this job.

A: I would say that it's been a long, winding road. I'm an Iron Ranger, born and raised here. I come from a long line of pharmacists and somehow ended up becoming a mining engineer — which isn't a huge stretch due to the fact that we're in a mining region.

The draw to the county was the fact that it manages 900,000 acres of tax-forfeited lands, and having a seat at the table as a land manager provides the ability to influence how things progress and develop.

The lion's share of our department focuses on timber management and supporting the forestry industry in northeastern Minnesota.

Q: Let's keep talking about that — what your office does and your role in it.

A: St. Louis County manages for the state of Minnesota tax-forfeited lands: These are lands that came under our management due to nonpayment of taxes, and then once we get those lands we look at the highest and best use for them.

So some of them we keep in conservation. That would include lands that we want to manage for timber management and lands that we want to maintain and hold for mining purposes now or in the future. And then there's other ones that we'll hang on to because they might be strategic in other ways — gravel resources, those types of things. Others we would classify for disposal, and that disposal might be working with local municipalities and townships on infrastructure, parks, parking or whatever they might need.

And the other parts we sell, and we've had a very robust land sale program here. We've been able to capitalize on the real estate market lately. And we also, through COVID, transitioned to online land sales versus in-person public auctions, and that has increased our bidding and our reach for those auctions significantly.

Q: So there's 900,000 acres now; what's the next decade going to hold for that land?

A: These lands you're looking out 50, 100 years to see what that next cycle of timber looks like, what that next generation of mining looks like, so you really are on different time horizons.

We've been working on different land exchanges. One of the big ones now is working with the federal government to remove ourselves from the lands up in the Boundary Waters and get productive lands outside of the Boundary Waters that are able to be managed. It's our goal to get as many properties back into private hands, into productive use, and to be tax-generating properties.

The other piece that our department has a very important role in is the management of blight. We don't get to pick the properties that come our way and when some of them, especially in urban environments, come our way they've got structures that have been neglected for a long period of time. Our department now is working to either make the determination of can these structures be put back on the tax roll in the condition that they're in, or do we have to look at demolishing them and bringing them down and redeveloping those properties?

Q: The county's mineral resources have been sought and fought over for decades now in terms of copper/nickel. Does your office play a role in those projects?

A: St. Louis County doesn't directly manage the mineral estate as it relates to tax-forfeited land. That role is part of the DNR lands and minerals department that manages those pieces. However, we've got a strong working relationship with the DNR to ensure that the tax-forfeited trust — those beneficiaries of the trust and their interests — are represented in how that management happens.

The beneficiaries are the school districts, the local governments and the county. Part of the big push for St. Louis County creating mineral development specialists was to further assert a seat at the table, to ensure that these interests are taken into account and that we are in a position to be able to help move mineral development forward in a responsible and safe manner.

The debate isn't going to go away but neither is the demand for the minerals. So it's going to be a continuous education process and a response to the demand as to how these projects move forward. You look at the current push to electrify vehicles — those raw minerals come from somewhere. We want to make sure that we're positioning our world-class deposits in a way that they can be developed and used and mined responsibly.

Q: What do you see for the future of northeastern Minnesota's natural resource economy, both extractive and recreational?

A: Controlling land and helping to influence where those lands go and how they're used is such an important part of how our region develops. That's probably one of the most fun parts of the job — working within the county and figuring out where those areas of influence might be.

St. Louis County is working really hard on supporting recreation: opening lands and serving lots of different clubs that are really starting to explode in their development. Everything from ATV trails, snowmobile trails, to the Redhead Mountain Bike Park. That is a great intermediate land use, where the landscape was created with mining. It is being repurposed now for recreation.

St. Louis County has a lot of different types of land use and different interest in how the land should be used. Sometimes that can be looked at as competing uses. But I think that it can be more looked at as an iterative land use, and I think that perspective is important. Just because we're using it one way now doesn't mean it can't be used differently down the line or at the same time.

Look at the mining operations — before that they were used for timber management. The timber was taken off, ore was discovered, it was mined, and after it was mined it was reclaimed and became a beautiful pit lake used for recreation. Down the line we circle back and find value in the stockpiles. Those are mined, they create a place for housing development or further recreation. This focus on generational, itinerant land use is really important. The influences on how we use our lands are far-reaching. Making sure that we communicate and assert what we think is best use and work with our partners in determining that is so important.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496