Consolidated Conservation lands, commonly referred to as Con-Con lands, are state-owned property held in the public trust specifically for conservation purposes. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been given the responsibility by law to manage these lands for the public.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of counties in Minnesota issued bonds to pay the cost of ditching millions of wet acres for the purpose of draining the land for agricultural use. Land was sold to individual property owners and ditches were dug. Not all of these efforts resulted in the creation of suitable farmland, however. Continued drainage problems combined with the economic depression of the 1930s caused many landowners to default on their property taxes, which, in turn, put the counties at risk of defaulting on the ditch bonds. The State of Minnesota interceded, paying off the county ditch bonds in exchange for full state ownership and management of the lands.
Three legislative acts in the late 1920's and early 1930's paid off the bonds and transferred the land to state ownership. All income from these lands was “consolidated” into one fund, hence the name Consolidated Conservation (Con-Con) lands. The Con-Con lands were placed under the management of the then Department of Conservation, now known as the Department of Natural Resources.
There were originally about 1.9 million acres of Con-Con lands in seven counties (Aitkin, Beltrami, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, and Roseau). About 400,000 acres were reclassified as agricultural land and sold to private parties during the late 1930s through the 1990s. Some of these lands went tax-forfeit again and were re-sold.
Lands reviewed during 1999: After a series of public meetings and discussions with local officials, the DNR made recommendations on thousands of individual land parcels to be designated into management units, mostly as state forests and wildlife management areas. The 2000 Minnesota Legislature passed a comprehensive bill to finalize management designations for approximately 260,000 acres.
Lands reviewed in 2000 and actions taken in 2002 legislative session: In 1991, then DNR Commissioner Joe Alexander issued Commissioner’s Orders to designate 102,314.74 acres as state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). In August 1999, the Attorney General’s Office determined that the WMA designation in the 1991 DNR Commissioner’s Orders required legislative approval. The 2000 legislation provided for county boards in Beltrami, Marshall, and Roseau Counties to request a DNR review of the 1991 Con-Con designations in their county. All three counties passed resolutions before the June 30, 2000 deadline. Public input meetings were held and written comments were taken by U.S. mail, fax, e-mail, and hand delivery. The 2001 legislature did not act on designating these acres, however, the 2002 legislature passed a bill formally designating the remaining 102,315 acres in the 3 counties as Wildlife Management Area lands effective January 1, 2003.
WMAs are managed primarily for wildlife, perpetuation of natural plant communities, protection of rare and distinctive native plants and animals, public hunting and trapping, and other compatible outdoor recreational uses. Habitat management is a major activity on WMAs and is accomplished by prescribed burning of brush lands and grasslands, logging of commercial timber stands, and other habitat management techniques. Watershed protection and flood control are additional important benefits provided by some WMAs.
State Statute (Chapter 97A.133, Subd. 3) mandates identifying, designating, and signing ATV trails in “corridors of disturbance” to connect trails, forest roads, and public highways, or that have historic ATV use. This law sets a goal of at least 90 miles of trail in, or contiguous to, Con-Con WMA lands that were designated as WMA since 1986. The DNR has until January 15, 2004 to identify these corridor trails. In addition, ATV use is mandated, for a portion of the WMA lands designated in 2002, during the firearms deer season. State law also allows ATV use during the firearms deer season to retrieve harvested deer on WMAs in part of far northwestern Minnesota. These areas are specifically described in the annual hunting and trapping regulations.
Isolated parcels of Con-Con land of 40 acres or less that are not contiguous with other public land may be made available for sale or exchange if they are not appropriate for conservation or recreation purposes. A report titled “ISOLATED CONSOLIDATED CONSERVATION LANDS REPORT” dated January 15, 2001 describes the 14 parcels that meet the above definition and outlines the recommended disposition of the parcels. This report recommends selling a total of 10 land locked acres in Roseau County, and designating or exchanging the remaining parcels. The DNR will also consider additional opportunities for land exchanges with local units of government that would enhance conservation outcomes.
Commercial revenues: The percentage of revenue currently received by counties (50%) for the sale of timber, mineral leases, etc., on these lands is not affected by designation into DNR management units.
Tax revenues: The 2000 Minnesota Legislature increased the Payment-In-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) to counties from the state general fund on WMAs, Scientific and Natural Areas, and State Parks on Con-Con lands. The rate was increased from the previous 37.5 cents per acre to over 3 dollars per acre, with annual adjustments for inflation. The payment rate for Con-Con lands in State Forests was left at 37.5 cents per acres and annual adjustments for inflation were added.