MINNEAPOLIS — Fundamental to American property ownership is the right to sell one’s land to the buyer of his or her choice.
Or is it?
That question is at the heart of a conflict in extreme western Minnesota between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Lac qui Parle County Board.
One of the most popular destinations for Minnesota outdoors enthusiasts, especially bird hunters, Lac qui Parle County historically has served as a hotbed of pheasant and waterfowl habitat.
Songbirds and raptors also are frequent regional visitors, with more than 250 bird species, including American white pelicans and American golden-plovers, documented on the 33,000-acre Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
So bird-rich is that WMA that Audubon Minnesota and the DNR have designated it one of the state’s 54 Important Bird Areas.
Yet even by recent historical standards, Lac qui Parle County specifically and western Minnesota generally aren’t the wildlife incubators they once were.
Wetland drainage, grassland losses and the conversion, in some cases, of even marginal farmland to row cropping have triggered declines of game and nongame species.
Also, the radically altered Minnesota River watershed is often awash in costly flooding, which further befouls the region’s lakes, rivers and wells.
In the current controversy, in which the DNR is attempting to marginally enlarge two WMAs by purchasing land from willing sellers, there are no bad guys, only people representing their positions from their perspectives.
One is Todd Patzer, a 50-year-old farmer and also a pheasant and deer hunter. He’s among four Lac qui Parle County commissioners who recently voted against allowing an 80-acre parcel and a 158-acre parcel to be purchased by the DNR to expand two WMAs.
“The board’s thought process and mine as well is that there is value in private ownership,” Patzer said. “When we sell our land to public entities such as the DNR, those acres are no longer available for people to make a living off because the land is locked up forever.”
Curt Vacek, the DNR area wildlife supervisor headquartered at Lac qui Parle, counters that only 4 percent of the county is publicly owned.
“It’s important to understand the DNR does not go ‘shopping’ for land to buy,” Vacek said. “In virtually every case like this, it’s someone coming to us who says they have a piece of farmland that is too marginal and not producing a profit, or they have recreation land they no longer want.”
Most of these properties don’t qualify for DNR purchase, Vacek said, because they’re not adjoining, or close to, existing wildlife areas. What’s more, the DNR isn’t adding land to its rolls willy-nilly. Between 2000 and 2009, Vacek said, in Lac qui Parle County the agency acquired property at a rate of 128 acres a year. Since 2009, the pace has slowed to 92 acres annually,
Importantly, the two parcels in question would benefit water management. “Getting grass back on the land is one tool we use that can help us retain water out here, instead of sending it to the next landowner downstream,” he said.
Terry Overlander, who co-owns a radio station in Madison, Minn., was the lone county commissioner who voted in favor of the land sale. Also a hunter, he sees both sides.
“But most importantly, I believe a person should have a right to sell their property to whoever they want,” Overlander said. “Additionally, because I’m a businessman, I deal with ‘main street’ businesses every day. Tourism is important to these people. A lot of folks out here don’t realize how big tourism is.”
Overlander, of course, is defining “important” in terms of dollars and cents. Farmers make a similar argument, saying that when agriculture is measured by its impact on the state’s economy, it benefits everyone, and therefore should be nurtured — not least by keeping as much of the state as possible in private hands, and thereby available for cropping.
Unfortunately, the value of the state’s natural heritage, calculated by the relative abundance of healthy lands and clean water, and the ready enjoyment and unfettered utilization of wildlife, now and far into the future, is less easily monetized — however fundamental these timeless attributes are, or should be, as American birthrights.