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Cass County Board: Townships support DNR land purchase with a condition

The DNR is asking for a letter of support in acquiring some parcels currently owned by The Conservation Fund in Cass County. Townships want Wildlife Management Area designation.

Cass County Courthouse in Walker.
Cass County Courthouse in Walker.
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BACKUS — A proposal by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to obtain conservation land has residents and officials concerned in two Cass County townships.

Adam Munstenteiger, regional manager of the Division of Forestry for the Department of Natural Resources, attended the Tuesday, Jan. 17, Cass County Board meeting to ask for a letter of support in acquiring some parcels currently owned by The Conservation Fund in Cass County.

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Also sworn in were reelected county commissioners Scott Bruns and Neal Gaalswyk, Recorder Katie Norby and County Attorney Ben Lindstrom.
The board approved the proposed levy with an increase of 5.06% over the 2022 levy, for a total levy amount of $25,331,700.
Election officials said a total of 909 voters were processed on election day at the courthouse counter, with the majority of them voting in-person in protest to receiving a mail ballot.

Munstenteiger said a representative with the DNR attended a township meeting within each of the two townships where the parcels are located to discuss the possible acquisition.

Munstenteiger provided a summary of what was discussed and the outcome of the meetings. Ansel Township officials were supportive of the acquisition, he said, but they were concerned about increased off-highway vehicle traffic if the parcels were to become state forest land. He said Ansel Township officials would like to see the parcels designated as a Wildlife Management Area, which would restrict the public use of motorized vehicles without applying for a special permit.

During the initial meeting with McKinley Township officials there was no specific decision made. The meeting lasted approximately 50 minutes with the township board not clearly stating they supported or did not support the proposal, Munstenteiger said.

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With several residents from Ansel and McKinley townships attending the county board meeting Commissioner Bob Kangas requested they hear from the townships as the board will support their desires.

Miles Kuschel, a resident of Ansel Township, said the township is in favor of the acquisition if the parcels are designated as Wildlife Management Area as only non-motorized vehicles are allowed within such locations. Currently there is an issue in the Foot Hills State Forest with off-highway vehicles damaging trails and forest roads, and Kuschel felt these vehicles would also damage the roads/trails in the newly acquired parcels if designated as state forest lands.

Kuschel said he does not want to limit access during hunting season to older citizens or citizens with limited mobility and asked if the parcels were to be designated as Wildlife Management Area if those citizens would still be able to access their deer stand. Christine Reisz, Brainerd area wildlife manager with the DNR, said those citizens could apply for a special permit to allow them to use a motorized vehicle during hunting seasons in order to allow them access.

Bill Brown, a resident of McKinley Township, also spoke on behalf of the township and said they had the same concerns as residents of Ansel Township regarding the off-highway vehicles. He also provided a brief history of the Potlatch Lands acquired by The Conservation Fund. He told the board the DNR acquisition is an opportunity for those lands to once again be open to public hunting as they were before being leased and then eventually sold by Potlatch.

After hearing from the two townships that would be affected, Commissioner Jeff Peterson motioned to approve a letter of support with a request to conduct additional public meetings with townships to discuss how the land will be managed and request Wildlife Management Area designation on the lands to be acquired as state forest lands, based on the feedback provided to the county board from townships. Peterson’s motion was approved unanimously

County Administrator Josh Stevenson reported back to the board regarding a meeting with the Budget Committee. Discussion regarding how to distribute the remaining American Rescue Plan Act Funds was the main focus during the meeting.

It was decided to recommend to the full board to approve a Phase III American Rescue Plan Act application where local businesses, nonprofits, local units of government and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe could request funds for a qualifying project with a commitment of matching funds. Any project with the following priorities will be considered:

  • Expand services to disproportionately impacted communities;
  • Expand emergency medical services, fire protection and ambulance services;
  • Expand workforce housing in critical need communities;
  • Expand opportunities for community vaccination clinics;
  • Expand child care capacity and early learning opportunities for our communities;
  • Promotes youth participation in after-school programs;
  • Provides a long-term solution to a problem amplified by the pandemic;
  • Provides Broadband Internet to underserved and unserved areas of the county;
  • Provides long term natural resource protection;
  • Use of American Rescue Plan Act Funds from other local units of governments is part of financial plan;
  • Support from other local units of government is documented.

The amount remaining in American Rescue Plan Act funds for this phase is $800,000. The money for previous applications that have been approved but not funded yet has been earning interest. Therefore, this interest will also be available for various projects. The application period for this phase is to end June 23, 2023, and all reimbursements must be requested before Dec. 31, 2024.
In other business, the county board:

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Approved the courthouse unit labor contract for the next three years to include a 5% cost of living adjustment and 3% step increases annually, consistent with all other labor agreements.

Approved the dispatch and records labor contract within the sheriff’s department for the next three years to include a 5% cost of living adjustment and 3% step increases annually, consistent with all other labor agreements, plus a uniform allowance increase, consistent with similar labor contracts.

Established a committee of the board to determine how to use the funds received from the opioid settlement with Commissioners Rick Haaland and Bob Kangas volunteering.

Approved a match payment of 25% to state of Minnesota Emergency Funds, which will cover the remaining cost to Cass County snowmobile clubs to clean up tree damage on Grant In Aid snowmobile trails from the Dec. 13-15 winter storm event.

Approved a letter of support for Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Trunk Highway 210 and County State Aid Highway 1 intersection project.

The next meetings are as follows: Commissioner’s board meeting 9 a.m. Feb. 7 at the boardroom in the courthouse annex in Walker and commissioner’s board meeting 9 a.m. Feb. 21 at the Land Department meeting room in Backus.

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