An Eden Prairie couple snagged 65 acres along Lake Superior’s north shore for $1.2 million, with a plan to keep it wild.

Pillager resident Kevin Metz scored part of an island in Bear Island Lake near Ely for $33,500. His family camps there.

Wisconsin resident Tracy Turner mused that she might put a cafe on the acre she bought “crazy cheap” for just $1,925 west of Toivola in St. Louis County.

It sounds like an Up North fantasy — owning your own piece of raw Minnesota land while helping out the state Department of Natural Resources.

In reality, the DNR’s effort to sell off surplus state land is harder than you’d think. For every parcel sold, there’s one in the agency’s box for misfit toys. Some parcels are unattractive; others highly specialized, like the former St. Croix Boys Camp that the DNR did finally sell. The labor to prepare public land for sale — archaeological reviews, evaluations, appraisals — adds to the price. Some sales need an OK from the Legislature.

Typically the DNR sells only half or less of what it peddles, and many of the parcels it puts on the public auction block sell for the minimum bid, DNR records show.

“There are some parcels we can’t even get a government entity to take for free,” said Trina Zieman, the DNR’s Land Asset and School Trust Administrator. “We’re left with orphan parcels that nobody even wants to buy.”

Now the DNR is revamping land sales in an effort to be more strategic. Working to upgrade the 5.6 million acres of state-owned land that the DNR administers, staffers for the first time are systematically targeting isolated, lower-quality parcels to sell, then using the money to buy better land.

“Quite honestly, our land sales efforts have been lacking,” said DNR Deputy Commissioner Dave Schad.

Scattered holdings

It’s a significant shift for an agency with a cultural bias toward accumulating — not selling — land.

News of the DNR’s new “Sales and Reinvestment Initiative” has sparked opposition from some conservationists, who say it’s a step in the wrong direction. They chafe at the notion of “surplus” land and worry that valuable natural resources will be lost in the push. Truly bad parcels, they say, have already been sold.

“A lot of wildlife managers are probably rolling over in their graves,” said retired DNR wildlife manager Jerry Maertens.

Just what the DNR will buy with the proceeds is under negotiation now.

Last year, the DNR asked seven counties in northern Minnesota for their suggestions on public lands to sell; county officials are generally eager to get land out of public hands and into the hands of private owners who pay property taxes.

Beltrami County, for instance, sent a list of more than two dozen candidates. The DNR plans to consult more county boards, Schad said, and is tapping DNR field staff for recommendations.

Schad agreed that every parcel is valuable.

“The question is could it be replaced with something that provides even more of a water quality benefit or better or more habitat for wildlife?”

Popular with hunters

The first fruits of the DNR’s new effort hit the public auction block last month.

Among the 14 parcels on the block were seven that DNR regional field staff selected under the new program. They included narrow strips of farmland in Meeker County that were part of an old plan to expand the Luce Line State Trail; 40 acres of hilly woods in Houston County; and two parcels popular with hunters that were removed from wildlife management areas in Anoka County because they were detached from them.

Maertens, the retired DNR wildlife manager, said he was shocked when he saw the list. The bulk of the offerings are good wildlife habitat, he said. He said he thinks it’s “absurd” for the DNR to ask county boards what they want to sell.

“These lands are the ‘blood and guts’ of Minnesota hunters,” Maertens wrote in an e-mail to Schad.

Others share his concern. Rich Staffon, a retired DNR wildlife manager who heads a chapter of the Izaak Walton League in Duluth, said his group is “leery” of the initiative. Even small scattered tracts provide valuable natural resources benefits, he said. At the very least they are places for children to run around in the woods. Staffon said his group is on edge given the Republican-led effort underway nationally to privatize public lands.

“I think we sometimes forget that it’s the people’s land that we’re selling,” he said. “They’re not making any more land.”

‘Really good deals’

The DNR has been under pressure for years to rationalize the state’s land holdings. Most of its sales in the past decade were driven by legislative mandates to sell and hit certain dollar amounts — which the DNR couldn’t meet.

Altogether, the DNR has sold or transferred 4,270 acres of state land in the past decade for $10.8 million, the Star Tribune found through data requests. That’s less than one half of 1 percent of the state’s portfolio. Since 2008, Zieman said, the state has added more land than it has sold.

Now the DNR wants to streamline what Zieman described as a cumbersome process for preparing lands for sale. They hope to attract more buyers by better publicizing the DNR’s public land auctions. A new web page, a social media campaign and fact sheets for lawmakers are in the works.

Zieman doesn’t anticipate a surge of land offerings. The goal, she said, is to boost the rate of successful sales.

About 60 percent of the DNR’s land sales are through public auctions or over-the-counter, the Star Tribune found. The rest is sold or transferred to other government entities, or sold directly to a specific party asking to buy it.

Much of the land sold through public sales in the past decade is in northern Minnesota, much of it forested. Some were lake lots. Many contained wetlands. One had a 100-foot DNR lookout tower. Then there were odd fragments, such as the triangle of grass on Interstate 90.

The average size and price: 20 acres and $55,617.

Although the buyers included a handful of developers, most were individuals, some living next door, since the DNR notifies adjacent landowners of upcoming sales.

Turner, the Wisconsin woman, said she regularly cruises the DNR’s website.

“I always watch the auctions, and they’ve got really good deals.”

Other parcels won’t budge. The DNR has tried several times to unload 26 acres of woods on St. Mary’s Lake in St. Louis County with nearly 1,500 feet of shoreline. It cut the price in half, to $366,600, but was snubbed again in December’s auction.

“I don’t know what to think,” Zieman said.

There are signs the DNR’s new strategy might work. Five of the seven parcels picked under the new program sold in the December auctions — a higher-than-normal hit rate.

Some even triggered bidding wars. The 20 acres near Forest Lake, a parcel carved from the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area because it was detached, sold for $45,000, nearly double the minimum bid.

Katie Clark and Nick Hopp, the young couple who won, fist-bumped at their victory. They live next to the land and said they just didn’t want it developed. They enjoy the roaming deer, turkeys and barred owls.

“The reason we’re out there is to have space,” Clark said.

Zieman said she was ecstatic over the results.

“This is a first for the department where we purposely are selling parcels to purposely acquire higher-priority parcels.”