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Crow Wing County targets Potlatch timberlands to acquire

Crow Wing County Land Services Director Gary Griffin sits at the corner of the table while seeking guidance from the Board of Commissioners at the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, April 16, at the historic county courthouse. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Crow Wing County Land Services is seeking to acquire privately owned timberland while divesting itself from isolated tax-forfeited, county-owned parcels surrounded by private landowners.

County staff reviewed land holdings by Potlatch Minnesota Timberlands while updating the county's land asset management policy in December 2016 and found none were of high importance for the county to acquire.

"The Potlatch land has been enjoyed for public hunting, for instance, by lots of folks—snowmobile trails running through those properties," County Administrator Tim Houle said the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, April 16.

But several Potlatch properties in the county are adjacent to tax-forfeited lands, so county officials reason it would make sense for the county to purchase and consolidate the privately-held land with county-owned land to better manage the region.

"To be sure, it will have an impact. It'll change the face of our community in ways that we don't yet fully understand," Houle said of Potlatch's divestment of its private holdings in the county, which amount to 292 parcels or 10,000 total acres.

Land Services Director Gary Griffin said, "From the selling standpoint, some of this stuff is being built on, but a lot of it is still being sold for the recreational aspect, and that's still probably the main driver of who's buying this type of property."

Griffin also suggested to the county board that the county should sell the 40-acre parcels of land it owns that are surrounded by private landowners, possibly to the neighboring landowners.

He proposed at the meeting the top five private properties that the county would like to acquire—520 acres of which are owned by Potlatch and the rest in Cuyuna owned by Peter Heno.

"(There is a) verbal agreement from Heno that he would like to sell all 120 acres to the county over time but wants to be paid under $50,000 per year for tax purposes," according to Griffin.

"We have secured a grant for the first 40 (acres) of that 120. This would give us direct access to quite a bit of land for future forest management and to harvest, of course."

The Potlatch holdings that the county seeks to acquire the most are located near the Ross Lake (80 acres), Crow Wing (40 acres), Mission (80 acres) and Timothy (320 acres) townships.

"There are ones that either would make it easier to access ... or they are heavily forested, so we do believe they are good candidates for management, if you will, so those would be the ones that we would potentially pursue in the future," Griffin said at the meeting.

Houle said, "We'd like to more actively pursue some of those five parcels than we have historically."

Land Services staff has identified 91 parcels, or more than 3,000 acres, of tax-forfeited land that the county owns as possible candidates for divestment.

"That's a lot of fragmented land that could be better served in private ownership than our ownership. And if they don't sell, we do auction them. Typically, if the adjoining landowner doesn't buy it, very seldom is there somebody else wanting that lot that's out there," Griffin said.

The top 10 county divestment opportunities, which total 440 acres, are located in or near the First Assessment, Bay Lake, Emily, Nokay Lake, Maple Grove, Platte Lake and Nisswa.

"What I would suggest is you want to give staff the room to maneuver to say when does divestment of a particular parcel makes sense and when does the acquisition of a particular parcel makes sense," Houle told the board.

Griffin said the strategy will result in an increase in the amount of land available for public use, as well as an increase in the overall tax base.

Land Services manages tax-forfeit property for the county's forestry, recreation, and land asset management activities encompassing 105,000 acres of county public forest land.

"We're actually going to try and consolidate these (tax-forfeited) parcels into larger (ones) ... and hopefully it makes it more attractive for a potential buyer, so we're going to continue to try to be as aggressive as we can to sell those tax-forfeited lots," Griffin said.