County approves land transfer to USFWS
WORTHINGTON -- More than a year ago, Nobles County Pheasants Forever purchased 121.75 acres of marginal land in Section 29, Graham Lakes Township, with the intent the land be developed as additional wildlife habitat.
On Tuesday, Pheasants Forever representatives and Steven Durkee, senior realty specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, went before Nobles County Commissioners to seek approval of a land transfer from PF to the USFWS. This is the first time in more than a decade that the two agencies have attempted to partner in the county to establish a wetland.
Nobles County Pheasants Forever president Scott Rall said that while they typically partner with the Department of Natural Resources to establish public hunting lands, the land involved in this purchase was within a quarter-mile of an existing USFWS parcel.
Jack Creek runs through the western edge of the property, and there is limited tile on the parcel. Rall said the tile, if it does not provide service to adjacent landowners, will be disconnected and the land restored to a wetland.
"I think we're going to be able to make some measurable improvements in (reducing) soil erosion," Rall told commissioners.
The 2011 property taxes owed on the property were $2,846, but the USFWS has just $1,190 available to pay the taxes. The remainder would come from a one-time revenue sharing payment USFWS will pay the county of $25,850. That payment will help cover the difference in taxes owed for approximately the next 16 years, provided the tax rate doesn't increase.
The loss of tax revenue in future years was a concern for some commissioners.
"I think when you buy land out by the wellhead protection area, I think that's fabulous," said Commissioner Vern Leistico. "Here, you're out in the middle of nowhere. We're going to lose money on it in the long run and I guess I don't care for that."
Durkee said the future of programs used to finance these land acquisitions cannot be guaranteed, adding, "We deal with what we've got."
Commissioner Marv Zylstra said he's been dealing with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Natural Resources on other issues, and said he didn't feel the agencies have been "stepping up to the plate" to resolve them.
It was then asked what Pheasants Forever's options were if the county did not support the land transfer.
"It could cause some very large uncertainties," said Rall. "Pheasants Forever went out and bought the property completely on borrowed money."
Rall said the chapter has paid approximately $25,000 to $30,000 in interest on the land, and if county commissioners didn't approve the transfer, they would have to put the parcel up for sale and hope that with the increased land values, they could recoup the interest money they've paid in.
"It would put a pretty big dent in us if this transfer was not approved," Rall said.
Durkee said if the county doesn't approve of the land transfer, Pheasants Forever could appeal to the state's Land Board (which includes the governor and state auditor) for a potential reversal.
"The county is asked the opinion and it's the land board that actually decides," Durkee said.
Responding to brief discussion about farmable land being taken out of production, Durkee said the USFWS wouldn't be involved in the land acquisition if that was the case.
"This absolutely qualifies as marginal ground," added Rall. "Pheasants Forever has always been very conscious of the needs of the county board and our habitat objectives."
Rall said there are about 90 acres on the parcel that are cropped, and approximately 40 of those acres "have no business being under cultivation."
Commissioner David Benson spoke in support of the transfer, saying, "I think we've looked at a lot of the acquisitions Pheasants Forever has made and there's been a conscious effort to return the lands that are tillable."
Leistico asked why this particular ground was selected for habitat development, and was told this parcel would help establish a large waterfowl area.
"There are a couple of small basins that could function as pair ponds -- isolated small wetlands where birds could do their courtship," explained Windom District Wetlands Manager Barry Christensen. "The more small wetlands around improves that nesting."
Christensen said the area will benefit not only waterfowl, but pheasants and grassland birds as well.
"This particular property would have quite a bit of deer hunting on it," he added. "Our areas are open to public hunting, and those lands do add revenue. Study after study shows billions of dollars returned to the federal economy from hunting. It's part of what we support."
Pheasants Forever board member Les Johnson also spoke in favor of the transfer, telling commissioners that Jack Creek is "terribly overloaded."
Concerned about water quality, Johnson said once grass is established on the parcel, it will help hold the water back and act as a filter.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the land transfer, with Zylstra casting the opposing vote.