A massive loss of hunting access?
St. Paul — Past warnings about cuts to a state forestry program have come home to roost.
Molpus Woodlands Group owns nearly 300,000 acres of land in the state, including 128,000 in the northeast to which it has said it will block motorized access, the result of a loss of tax incentives. In the short term, access for grouse and deer hunters could be jeopardized and, later, snowmobile access could be limited.
That land, much of it in northern St. Louis County, is enrolled in the Sustainable Forestry Incentives Act program, which pays landowners to maintain the land as working forest and keep it open for public access. However, as part of legislation passed by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature, payments to individual landowners were capped at $100,000 beginning in 2010.
The current Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton have not dealt with the caps, either. For its part, Molpus saw its annual tax break reduced from more than $2 million to $100,000.
“The whole thing is pinching pennies and not coming up with a solution,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “If any landowners don’t abide by their SFIA agreement, they get mauled. In this case, the state of Minnesota says we (can change the terms in the middle of a contract) because we are the state government.”
Said Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake: “When you cap someone at $100,000 who’s supposed to get $2 million, that’s a pretty tough blow.”
Dill said he’s been working with the Mississippi-based Molpus to work out a solution that will maintain access for hunters, anglers, and others who use the land.
Foot travel still would be permitted on the lands, but those who use Molpus lands to access deer-hunting cabins, for example, would be especially affected. Many people who use Molpus roads likely don’t realize the roads aren’t county or Forest Service roads.
While the company hasn’t yet barred motorized access to its property, Dill said, it has put in gates, which aren’t yet closed.
“This is a direct result of the loss of tax incentives,” said Craig Halla, Minnesota property manager for Molpus. “It’s very difficult to manage this land just based on the timber sales revenue now with prices so low and still paying taxes. If we want to keep the land in production and open to public access, there has to be another source of revenue.”
Wayne Brandt, an executive with the Minnesota Timber Producers and Forest Industries group, said large landowners are more sensitive to property taxes because timber sells for less than half of its price six years ago, and the landowners have costs to maintain roads and trails.
“There could be significant impacts if we don’t come up with some sort of compromise yet this fall,” said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids.
But it’s a difficult time of year for anything concrete to happen. Dill, for example, is crafting a bill to deal with the issue, but the Legislature doesn’t go into session again until early next year.
“We recognize the impacts this will cause if they follow through with this action, and we’re interested in working with folks to come up with a solution,” said Bob Meier, DNR legislative affairs director. “But at the end of the day, this was done by the Legislature and there’s not much we can do at this time.”
The DNR recommends anyone who uses Molpus lands to call the company to determine if the roads they use for access will be closed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report