By Meadow Kouffeld, RGS & AWS Regional Wildlife Biologist
Despite the current negative state and federal climate toward public land holding, RGS and partners are working with government agencies to reverse this trend.
Coming from the West, I appreciate public land. The nature of our western big game requires that large tracts of land are available to support populations substantial enough for hunters to pursue. Huntable numbers of mule deer, blacktails, bighorn sheep, moose, caribou, mountain goats and elk don’t occupy 40-acre stands of trees in seas of corn. Very few people have the financial wherewithal to own thousands of western acres, however America’s greatness comes from our ability to enjoy the great outdoors, hunting and fishing notwithstanding personal wealth.
Access to public lands (of which every single American citizen is part owner) is key to hunting and the future of outdoor recreation. Ruffed grouse are much like western big game. Huntable populations need large tracts of contiguous habitat, and hunter’s need access to those tracts in order to pursue them. A few fortunate landowners have several hundred private acres to hunt ruffed grouse but even those parcels can sustain so much pressure.
Fortunately, the State of Minnesota is blessed with an abundance of forest lands accessible to the public. Public lands are arguably one of the State’s greatest assets, but unfortunately a big chunk of publicly accessible land is on the docket to sell.
There are 17.4 million acres of forest in Minnesota comprised of diverse ownership and even more complicated management regimes; 2.7 million in national forest, 0.3 million in other federal ownership, 4.2 million in state, 2.6 million on county and local government and finally the lions-share at 7.6 million acres in private and tribal ownership. In total, the forest products industry is the fifth largest manufacturing sector in Minnesota by employment, worth $17.8 billion dollars annually (gross) and critical to the economic vitality in the non-metro northern areas of the state.
A healthy proportion of those private lands are private-industry owned, meaning they belong to companies focused on paper, lumber, fiber and even pharmaceuticals, textiles and biomaterials products. Some of the names that one might recognize include Blandin (UMP Paper, ~188,000 acres) and Potlach Corp. (~158,000 acres) among others. Much of the acreages these companies hold are available for public use, under active forest management, and often have extensive infrastructure (i.e. roads) that make the acreage as well as adjacent public owned land accessible. There are several key benefits those private industry lands provide to both our natural resources and the human population. One of the most significant benefits to the public is access.
In recent years, many people return to hunt areas they have hunted for decades only to find them suddenly posted as private property or greatly altered. The resulting consternation and sense of loss is coupled with the stark reminder that the land is in fact private and can be sold with no notification.
I have experienced both sides of this coin. Potlach Corp. is one such company that is divesting (selling off an investment they no longer need) some of their land ownership. From the public’s perspective, the trouble is this land transfers to private ownership that either restricts access (permanently, unlike recreational leases on industry land) or the forest is completely removed and the land repurposed (e.g. conversion to agricultural fields such as potato fields in Cass and Hubbard counties). Both remove public access to the land itself and the land beyond the far side of the ownership boundary. Beyond selfish interest, one should look to the long-term impacts of the decline in land access. The fact is the future of hunting in part hinges on access to public lands where people can hunt!
In a state and federal climate negative toward public land holding (“government owned”), the hope that some of these divested industry lands can join the ranks of public ownership through acquisition is not likely. In general, state, county and federal governments often hold a “no-net gain” policy toward public lands, meaning that no additional acres can be held in public ownership within their jurisdiction. In order to acquire a new parcel, some other acreage needs to be sold to private ownership. Justifications range from tax-base loss (which is an extremely controversial topic and not always a benefit to the tax base) to anti-government sentiment.
The average hunters, regardless if they are from one political extreme or another, will need access to public lands to hunt. Selling public-owned land has been used to balance budgets, once. This short-sighted move deprives future generations of opportunity to benefit from access to natural lands and the economic benefit of access to surrounding communities. The future of publicly-owned land is one thing that all sportsmen and women, regardless of political affiliation, should rally around.
In Minnesota, despite the current negative climate toward public lands, several conservation organizations are working with a few select counties to buck the trend. You may have already read about it, but the Conservation Fund, Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association and the Ruffed Grouse Society have been working with several northern Minnesota counties to acquire private-industry lands and transfer to public ownership.
In two years, the partners have applied for Legacy funds from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund Committee for the purchase of these private-industry lands. Nearly $6 million dollars have been awarded and up to 8,000 acres are targeted for acquisition (Cass, Hubbard and St. Louis Counties).Once acquired, the partnering counties have agreed to receive the land and hold it in trust of the public and continue to manage the properties for forest products and wildlife habitat. Timber revenue will compensate local taxing districts for loss of current property tax income (at property taxes somewhere around $6/an acre, timber revenue will likely exceed projected tax income).
The Conservation Fund, Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association and the Ruffed Grouse Society have worked together to make this significant project possible. Without partners, the project would not have been made possible. The Ruffed Grouse Society hopes to continue to do good work with partners across North America to preserve the future of our sporting traditions and maintain healthy forests.
For more information: www.ruffedgrousesociety.org
Become a member: www.ruffed.org