Points North: Let’s Keep Lawmakers Out of the Real Estate Business

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Last fall, we looked at a 20-acre parcel the state was selling near Grand Marais, one of several on the North Shore included in a statewide land auction last October. It was land I knew well from grouse hunting and brook trout fishing, because it was crossed by an overgrown path that for decades provided public access to a trout stream. During the 1980s, the land even had a sign indicating it was actively managed for wildlife using sportsmen’s dollars.

But that was then and this is now, an era when the Legislature decided to sell some state land in order to pay the state’s bills. That property, as well as many others, didn’t sell in last October’s auction, because not much of anything is selling in the state’s depressed real estate market. The last I heard, the properties may be offered again—this time for less than their appraised value. Apparently the Legislature is so desperate to unload public lands it’s willing to give them away.

Even though the state can’t find buyers willing to purchase the properties it already has on the market, some Legislators want to get rid of even more land. Recently, a group of state representatives, including northeastern Minnesota’s David Dill and Tom Rukavina, introduced a bill calling for “no net gain” of state lands. Under the legislation, the state would be forced to sell an acre of land for every acre it acquires. Proponents of the legislation clearly believe the state has “enough” public land and apparently can’t discern the value of public holdings.

Begging to differ with the wisdom of our duly elected, I think a “no net gain” rule for public lands is a raw deal for you and me—the owners of that land. But, let me preface this discussion by saying I live in Cook County, where over 90 percent of the land is publicly owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In other words, I understand the issue. More public land means less property is available for private development and, in theory, limits the local tax base. The latter is mostly important to county commissioners, who derive their revenue from property taxes. It may be less important to the people who live there.

That’s because the public land very likely contains resources and amenities to support the local economy. In Cook County, our public land holdings include part of the BWCAW, several state parks, a national monument, and timber-producing forests. They are crisscrossed with hiking, ski and snowmobile trails, not to mention the public accesses to dozens of fishing lakes. These lands and their many uses are directly linked to the tourism and timbering sectors of our county workforce. Public sector employment is bolstered by state and federal natural resource and parks jobs that pay good wages with benefits. While we live in a remote corner of the state with limited economic opportunities, playing to the strength of our public land base has allowed us to build a small, but healthy economy.

Of course, other parts of the state have public lands with less appeal to tourists or loggers, such as bogs or wetlands. Still, it is hard to make a case that our public holdings somehow hinder development or economic growth. Some may argue the new Lake Vermilion State Park would have better served St. Louis County as a development project for trophy homes, but the strength of such an argument depends upon your view of the world. Surely, in areas of the state with an abundance of public holdings, land managers are keenly aware of the need to retain the local tax base when they are making land management decisions. In fact, one could argue a de facto “no net gain” approach to public lands management already exists.

While the state, like any large landowner, has surplus lands it would be better off without, it is hard to see how the state would be well-served by a “no net gain” law to require land sales any time the state acquires more property. What land would we sell? Perhaps state forest property that supplies raw material for the timber industry? Maybe a wildlife area purchased with donations from a local Pheasants Forever chapter? Or what the heck, should we turn over one of our state parks to Disney?

That brings up the second question. If public land is put up for sale, who will buy it? Aside from parks and forests, much of the land in the public domain is there because it has little value to the private sector. For instance, if we start selling the wetlands and marginal farmlands contained in most public holdings in western and northwestern Minnesota, what will a private owner do with them? Most likely, the lands will be enrolled in farmland conservation programs so the new owner can collect public subsidies.

In recent years, we’ve seen subsidies, easements and tax breaks for private landowners come to the forefront as a way to accomplish some conservation objectives on private lands. While we should keep these tools in our land conservation toolbox, we must be careful the programs are not misused by either lawmakers or private landowners. I suspect it would be much harder to do so with a “no net gain” policy in place, simply because the state would be forced to sell lands suitable for enrollment in these programs. If lawmakers actually press ahead with plans to start selling our property for less than its appraised value, abuses of the system are almost guaranteed.

Would selling public lands erase our state debt? Hardly, nor are sales likely to contribute much to local tax rolls, especially if private landowners manage the property as timberland or marginal farmland to get tax breaks and subsidies. Let’s face it, even if the “no net gain” bill becomes law, we are very unlikely to start unloading valuable state-owned lakeshore or wildlife lands suitable for residential development. In cases where there is a legitimate need to sell state land to a private developer for a specific project, mechanisms to do so already exist. About all a “no net gain” law will do is pander to a few rural county commissioners and serve as a “gotcha” to the majority of Minnesotans who voted for the Legacy Amendment, which raises money that can be used to acquire public land for conservation.

What about the often-heard argument that the state already owns more land than it can afford to manage? It’s baloney. Every spring when I walk through the garden center, I feel the same way about managing my own backyard. Somehow, I still mow the lawn and plant the garden anyway. State land managers operate the same way. What those who make the argument about the cost of land management fail to consider are the financial benefits to the state derived from public lands—which range from lucrative mineral leases to the economic impact of the state’s 500,000 licensed hunters.

Most importantly, it is hard to see how “no net gain” serves the state’s interests by removing a tool—the ability to acquire land as necessary—from the conservation tool box. I don’t know about you, but I don’t hire the mechanic with the fewest tools in the box. What we need from lawmakers is not a politically motivated line in the sand called “no net gain,” but a comprehensive strategy for public land management to derive conservation and economic benefits using the tools available—including land acquisition. Let’s keep the tools in the box and keep state lawmakers out of the real estate business.

Airdate: February 11, 2011

Photo courtesy of Minnecologies via wikimedia.

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