Don't undervalue the state's public lands

Firewood
Firewood

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Recently, a local logger delivered 12 cords of birch firewood to our yard. We always order our firewood at this time of year (it generally takes all winter to cut up the previous wood pile). Every year we have the same struggle; juggling between creating enough open space in the yard to accommodate the load and getting it delivered before spring road limits for truck weight go into effect.

This year, we cut it close, because rapidly warming temperatures were creating sloppy road conditions in the woods. When I talked to the logger last Friday evening, he knew the county was likely to announce the road limits very soon, but he didn’t know the exact date. He and his son were working hard to get the aspen and other wood they cut this winter trucked out of the woods.

All weekend truckloads of logs rumbled past our house. I always enjoy watching the wood go rolling by, because March is to loggers what October is to farmers—the culmination of harvest time. All winter long they’ve been cutting, skidding and stacking up the logs that are the raw material that becomes our Minnesota-produced paper and building products. Spring break-up brings an end to the winter logging season.

Around here, virtually all of the wood is cut from state forests. I thought about our forests while reading news accounts of a State Auditor’s report which says the DNR doesn’t have enough money to manage the land it owns. I haven’t had an opportunity to read the auditor’s report, but the news story implied the DNR doesn’t do much in terms of land management because it cannot afford to do more. While this may be true of some state lands—wildlife management areas come to mind—our state forests, parks and other lands are well-managed, well used and provide an array of social and economic benefits.

This is an important distinction at a time when the state’s political leaders are desperately seeking money to meet the state’s financial obligations. Desperate times call for desperate measures, which could mean the Legislature may consider selling off state land to raise cash. The report also gives ammunition to those among us who think public land is a bad thing and either seek to get rid of the state lands or prevent the state and other government agencies from acquiring more of it.

While some may disagree, I don’t think public land is a burden on taxpayers or local governments, because the benefits we derive from it generally exceed any real or imagined gains from putting the land on the tax rolls. I can point to the place where I live, Cook County, where over 90 percent of the land is in public ownership, with the primary public owners being the federal (US Forest Service) and state (DNR) governments.

 
Cook County is remote. Duluth, the nearest urban center, is two hours away via two-lane Highway 61. Despite its remoteness, Cook County has some impressive statistics. Our county has one of the highest levels of education per capita in the state and an interesting cross-section of residents. Even after the bursting of the real estate bubble, our real estate prices are the highest in northeastern Minnesota. In my opinion, this isn’t due to a limited private land base, but rather, the desirability of an area with an abundance land and waters. Those same natural resources are the backbone of our tourism- and timber-based economy.

Nevertheless, you don’t have to walk very far down the halls of local government to find discontent with the public lands status quo. I once talked with a county commissioner who told me he believed the highest and best use of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would be to privatize it and develop the pristine lakes with homes and cabins to add to the local tax base. Never mind such a viewpoint would be whoppingly out of step with the views of most local voters, not to mention a majority of Minnesotans. You can find similar elected knuckle-draggers in most local governments.

While the critics of public land are usually loud, once you scrutinize their complaints about the loss of a local tax base, reality becomes a little fuzzy. For instance, our public forests support a thriving timber industry, our state parks are among the state’s most-visited attractions, our wildlife management areas are crowded with hunters and our public boat launches give us access to most of our 10,000 lakes. Without these public resources and amenities, Minnesota would be a very different place.

By contrast, public land critics never seem to rail against government spending on private lands, even though the total costs of such programs could purchase those private lands many times over. If they are so worried about the high cost of government, why don’t these local politicians rail against agricultural subsidies, flood payments, or corporate tax breaks and high-priced easement payments for large land holdings? More often, it seems the same critics of duck swamps and deer woods come to the government with hands outstretched and palms up to get public money for private benefit.

Now, I not suggesting a government takeover of private lands nor that all local officials are off in la-la land, but merely pointing out that public land benefits our economy and quality of life. As a landowner, the state should make fair in-lieu-of-tax payments and only acquire new property from willing sellers—and it does both. Such policies keep the system in balance and ensure all Minnesotans can enjoy our wealth of lands and waters.

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