From PILT to maintenance to economic impact, the debate continues

WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County received nearly $298,000 in state funding this year as a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) on 5,620.8 acres it maintains as public lands.

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WORTHINGTON - Nobles County received nearly $298,000 in state funding this year as a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) on 5,620.8 acres it maintains as public lands.

The payment arrived in late July and is split between the county, the township where the public land is located and the local school district in a formula that mirrors property tax disbursement. The one caveat is the state does not provide additional funding if, say, additional taxes are levied for a school referendum.

Earlier this year, supervisors from Bloom Township appeared before Nobles County commissioners in a work session to complain about a perceived loss of funding. They said PILT revenues were far less than what the land generated in property taxes when it was privately owned.

Those comments led to an investigation into PILT payments, with Commissioner Gene Metz pushing for more information about how payments are calculated and the formula the county auditor-treasurer’s office uses to distribute funds. Metz currently sits on an Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) policy committee work group focusing specifically on environmental issues in the state. Among its discussions are PILT appropriations and the potential for counties to enact a no-net-gain of public lands policy.

Metz, who farms near Lismore, said his primary concern with PILT is that it is a state appropriation, approved annually by the legislature. He’d like to see some guarantee the funds won’t decrease, and wants either money set aside for the future or an inflationary adjustment factored into future PILT payments.


Revenues from mining of DNR lands in northern Minnesota, as well as general tax revenues and the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, generate the funds paid to counties in PILT, Metz said.

“We’re presently getting more than half what we used to, but that can chip away in time or go negative,” Metz said.

Scott Rall, president of Nobles County Pheasants Forever, said Metz’s concern about the future of PILT isn’t new. He’s heard the worries many times over the past 20 years, but he also said the state legislature has never given serious consideration to reducing its payment in lieu of taxes to counties - even when the government shutdown happened in 2011.

“The issue was raised as a possibility and the backlash was just that great,” said Rall, who was serving on the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council at the time.

Figuring PILT PILT payments are made in two different categories - for wildlife management and acquired natural resources lands. In Nobles County, 5,616.74 acres are classified in wildlife management, with 4.1 acres of natural resources lands, according to Auditor-Treasurer Beth Van Hove. The 4.1 acres are water access sites, with 3.2 acres in Indian Lake Township and .9 acres in Graham Lakes Township.

When land is purchased and gifted to the state, the PILT is calculated at three-fourths of 1 percent of the land’s appraised value. It remains in that formula until the land is reassessed and reclassified as conservation land.

Reassessments are done every six years by the county assessor’s office and were last completed in Nobles County in 2016, according to Assessor Val Ruesch. During this last reassessment, state-owned lands generating PILT were valued at $6,200 per acre, up from $4,100 per acre in 2010.

“We look at Pheasants Forever (purchases) and the surrounding area some,” said Ruesch of determining values. “Every county can be a bit different.”


The value of conservation lands has increased in Nobles County in recent years - a trend that appears to follow agricultural land sales, Ruesch said. This year, the total market value of wildlife management lands in the county is $39.7 million, compared to $20.2 million five years ago. As a result of the increased value of conservation lands, the payment in lieu of taxes has also increased.

The rise in public lands In southwest Minnesota farm country, some say the Minnesota DNR already has more land than it can sufficiently maintain.

“They’re acquiring more and, from what we hear, they say they don’t have the funds for maintenance,” Metz said, adding that maintenance is a higher priority among work group members than the sustainability of PILT.

There’s also talk among Metz and his cohorts on the AMC work group about developing a no-net-gain of public lands policy. Thus far, eight Minnesota counties have enacted such policies.

While Metz doesn’t want a moratorium on public lands, saying lands acquired by Pheasants Forever and gifted to the DNR in Worthington’s wellhead protection area have been “real important,” he does favor a no-net-gain policy. Having a policy in Nobles County would force the DNR or U.S. Fish and Wildlife to come before the county’s board of commissioners to discuss land acquisitions.

“It gets to be more of a blessing - an approval process,” Metz said. “You can look at each transaction on its merit.”

Rall, however, sees it as a supreme property rights issue.

“Should the county board be able to tell you you can’t sell your property to Ducks Unlimited because you’ll make more money, or you can’t sell to Pheasants Forever because you have a conservation ethic?” Rall questioned. “The issue everyone should be concerned about under no-net-gain is, does the county preserve the right to restrict you, a private landowner, from selling your property to whomever you want in an effort to generate the highest value?”


As a farmer, Metz has his reasons for scrutinizing public lands. He said Section 17 - 640 acres in Bloom Township, sold to Ducks Unlimited in 2015 upon the wishes of the David B. Jones Trust and gifted to the DNR - was 80 percent farmable.

“You’re taking a pretty big chunk of economic development out of the county,” Metz said. “But that was one landowner controlling the section, and that was his wish.”

Metz said there are spots where DNR lands work well, but he wants to see a balance.

“I farm and we struggle to find more land,” he said. “Anyone who is basically in agriculture is not willing to give up a whole lot more. Someone on the other side of the fence wants a whole lot more.”

On the other side of the fence is Rall, who said between 2 and 2.5 percent of Nobles County land is currently in permanent grassland cover, either on private-owned or public lands. How much more would he like to see in public ownership?

“The right amount of public land will support a robust tourism and local economy, in addition to pollinators, water quality and wildlife,” Rall said.

He said Nobles County Pheasants Forever is the No. 1 group promoting water quality in the county today and that its acquistions provide as many water quality benefits - if not more - than wildlife habitat benefits.

“The most endangered ecosystems in North America today are grasslands and wetlands,” Rall said.

Going back to maintenance of public lands, he admits it is a common concern. Levels of maintenance vary across the state, but Rall contends public lands in Nobles County are the best maintained and have the highest quality of cover than in any other county.

“Maintenance for ag-related people is the control of thistles,” he said. “To spray thistles, it kills all of your perennial flowering plants as well, thus eliminating the pollinator benefits for public lands.”

This year, he added, was the year of the thistle, but once prairie grasses and flowers are established, weed issues are greatly reduced.

Finally, the economic impact of agricultural land versus public land can be debated on both sides. While farmers impact the local economy with their purchase of equipment, seed, fuel, chemicals and other necessities - and then market those crops after harvest, once again to the benefit of the local economy - Rall said public lands generate a boost to the economy as well.

“I have four groups of people that are coming the first month of the season to hunt in Nobles County,” Rall said. “They stay in motels, buy gas, visit the restaurants and do so almost all season long. The benefits to the local economy from public lands cannot be understated.”

Meanwhile, Rall said hunters’ vehicles don’t destroy roads.

“A township has no way to recoup damage when a hog truck drives down the gravel road,” he said. “Hunters’ pickups don’t destroy roads. Townships and counties take in all of this money in PILT payments every year, and they don’t have to spend that money on maintenance surrounding those public lands.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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