The Department of Natural Resources administers 5.7 million acres of public lands. It's a massive undertaking that is conducted by the divisions of forestry, fish and wildlife, ecological and water resources, and parks and trails. Managing this portfolio requires the buying and selling of lands that serve many functions, from conserving rare species or habitats to providing economic and recreational opportunities.

In 2008, the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment provided an infusion of cash for the acquisition of public lands, and in 2013 the agency launched the Strategic Land Asset Management Program. This framework is designed to better manage DNR land assets. It has also brought more coordination between divisions, counties, and DNR partners, such as Pheasants Forever and The Nature Conservancy, says Trina Zieman, who oversees the program. Under the plan, she says, all acquisitions are closely examined through the lens of six goals. The land will:

  • Protect natural resources, particularly rare species, sensitive groundwater resources, or rare habitats
  • Conserve prairie grassland habitat or native prairie
  • Consolidate land ownership to create larger, contiguous plots of land, or the property is within an area already managed by the DNR
  • Improve access to existing landholdings
  • Increase recreation opportunities within 30 miles of any population center over 50,000 people, or the land is located in a county with less than 5 percent public land
  • Help trust lands generate income for public schools and the University of Minnesota.

A recent 160-acre addition to the Rothsay Wildlife Management Area, for example, meets five of these goals. Great plains toads and prairie chickens, both state species of special concern, have been documented on the property, according to Fergus Falls area wildlife manager Don Schultz. The parcel, which was acquired by the DNR as a donation from the Fergus Falls Fish & Game Club, is located in the state's prairie region, where conserving habitat is one of the most critical environmental challenges facing Minnesota. The land has temporary wetlands for nesting waterfowl and cover for ground-nesting birds, says Schultz, who notes the addition "is adjacent to land we already own, and it provides better access to the existing WMA." Finally, the property will increase opportunities for outdoor recreation in Wilkin County, where only 2 percent of land is public.

The DNR is also redoubling its efforts to work with counties, which sometimes express concerns about public land effects on the local tax base. "We're reaching out to the counties for every acquisition," says Zieman. That outreach includes informing counties of payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT—money that counties and other local taxing districts receive from the state to compensate them for the loss of tax revenue.

Another important aspect of the Strategic Land Asset Management Program is to identify state lands that are not serving an important public purpose, then selling those lands and reinvesting the proceeds into more strategic landholdings. A primary focus of land sales are isolated lands that lack adequate public access, and lands that counties have identified as important for local economic development. In many cases, land exchanges can help to consolidate lands, creating management efficiencies for state and county land managers.

"Public lands provide many services, including clean air and water, outdoor recreation and tourism, and the timber, gravel, and mineral resources that drive economic development statewide," says Zieman.

Michael A. Kallok, associate editor