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‘How much is too much:’ Legacy Committee surveys state land ownership

By Jonathan Mohr

State ownership of land has been an ongoing concern in certain parts of Minnesota for years, with some residents worried that continued acquisitions have little regard for local impact and show no signs of slowing anytime soon.

The House Legacy Funding Finance Committee held an informational hearing on the issue Monday, to learn more about the acquisition process used by the Department of Natural Resources while voicing some concerns.

Bob Meier, DNR assistant commissioner, said he often hears people say the ‘DNR owns all the land in the state of Minnesota’ or ask ‘How much land is enough?’

“I think it’s important to take a quick step back and actually look at the land that we own,” Meier said.

Of the nearly 6 million acres of state land the DNR manages, Meier said only about one quarter of that – 1.5 million acres – was “acquired land” that had been purchased by the DNR. The rest comes from a variety of sources including 2.5 million acres of school trust land, which is the state’s largest single land holding. When the DNR does purchase land, Meier said it does so to help fulfill its mission of natural resource protection, economic development or enhancing outdoor recreation opportunities for Minnesotans.

Rep. Dean Urdahl

Committee Chair Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) asked if the DNR has a certain number of acres it is trying to reach as its land ownership goal. Pat Rivers, DNR Fish and Wildlife land acquisition supervisor, told the committee the DNR looks at how the land it owns is performing rather than trying to reach “some arbitrary number.”

More land, less revenue

Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) asked whether the DNR takes the cost of ongoing maintenance and upkeep into account before it buys a new parcel. Meier said that while those expenses are considered, finding the funding can be a challenge.

“Part of our responsibility as legislators and employees of the state is to make sure these ongoing costs are recognized, emphasized and addressed properly,” Torkelson said.

Those expenses are just one of the concerns some lawmakers have with the DNR’s land acquisitions. Also at issue is the tax revenue lost when a parcel of land is acquired by the state. When the DNR buys land, local governments lose out on property taxes they might otherwise collect. This is of particular concern in some northern Minnesota counties where greater concentrations of public ownership means large swaths of land cannot be taxed.

To reimburse local governments for this lost revenue, the state sends money to the counties called Payment in Lieu of Taxes. The total gross PILT payment in 2014 was $31.4 million.

But those expenditures have so far not been enough to satisfy everyone, and Urdahl said the issue “will be ongoing” as the session continues.

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