Sale of public wildlife land concerns Minnesota hunters
MANKATO, Minn. -- Wildlife habitat on Minnesota's private land has ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of farm programs and politics.
But most Minnesotans believe that once an area was purchased by or donated to the state and designated as a Wildlife Management Area, it would be there forever.
But the consequences of a law passed in 2005 by the Legislature now loom large and threaten that basic tenet.
Three years ago, legislators passed a bill requiring that, by June 30, 2007, enough state-owned land must be identified and sold to raise at least $6.44 million, with the proceeds going to the general fund. The bill was reauthorized two years later, setting the deadline at June 30, 2009.
Any shortfalls in reaching the $6.44 million target would be made up from the state's general budget that funds the various government agencies. To date, some $2.44 million has been raised through the sale of state lands.
With $4 million yet to be raised and the deadline looming, all state agencies, especially the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which oversees that lion's share of state-owned real estate, have been identifying more parcels that could be put on the public auction block.
Cases in point
In Region 4, for example, which includes southwestern Minnesota and Blue Earth County, 33 parcels submitted by Forestry, Parks, Wildlife and Fisheries Divisions have been identified for possible sale.
Some of them could be WMAs, parcels of wildlife habitat frequently bought and paid for from hunting license fees and federal excise taxes on outdoor gear.
In Blue Earth County, three WMAs -- Saiki WMA, 39 acres; Gage WMA, 34 acres; Hog Island, 15 acres -- have been identified as possibly going on the auction block.
Joel Anderson, a DNR wildlife manager whose area includes Blue Earth County, said he limited his selection only to units that had problems with limited access, no access or other issues that limit its value and purpose as a WMA.
"I was very careful not to include any flagship WMAs or any WMAs that had been purchased with donations from clubs or organizations," he said.
Saiki WMA has poor public access; Gage WMA has public access only by traveling two miles by river; Hog Island abuts the community of Garden City and isn't open to hunting.
In any case, he said it is uncertain as to whether WMAs, which involve federal Pittman-Robertson Funds, could be sold at all. "Because of federal restrictions, they couldn't be sold very easily," he said.
Series of hoops
Ken Varland, wildlife manager for Region 4, said that the whole process will have to go through several administration levels and many hoops before any final decisions are made.
Falling short of the legislatively mandated $6.44 million piggy-backed on the projected $5.2 billion tax revenue shortfall will create some serious budget issues for the agency. "It would be more than just a few food plots," Varland said. Rep. Tony Cornish recalled that the 2005 legislation mandating divestiture of state-owned land was part of an omnibus bill, and that he did not support that provision.
"Personally, I subscribe to the old Marine idea that when you gain a foot of land, you never give it up," he said of the proposed land sale.
Nevertheless, he speculated that the DNR is not above "rattling their sabers when they're threatened by the Legislature."
Howard Ward, a founding member and current board member of Blue Earth County Pheasants Inc., an organization that has raised and donated thousands of dollars to the DNR for acquisition of WMAs in the county, disapproves of the plan to sell off Blue Earth County WMAs in particular and the legislatively mandated land divestiture in general.
"Members go out and work hard to solicit prizes and raise cash to buy (WMAs) -- it's hard for them to see the Legislature mandate that these parcels be sold," he said. "It's not right.
"We shouldn't even be looking at it. ... How can they even consider stealing what hunters bought and paid for?"