Battle between Pine County and adjacent landowners over Munch Township memorial forest easement continues
A battle has come to a crescendo regarding an easement to access a public memorial forest in Hinckley’s Munch Township. During the May 1 county board meeting at the Pine County Courthouse, County Attorney Reese Frederickson explained that the county would like to purchase an easement from one of the adjacent landowners (the county already owns the rest of the easement) to allow the public to use the forest for recreational purposes and for the county to manage the aging forest, but the landowners have refused to sell the “missing link” of the easement to the county.
The memorial forest is a 1,120-acre parcel which had been tax-forfeited to the county from a land swap exchange from the state. When given the opportunity to sell the parcel at a county land auction, the county designated the land as a memorial forest to preserve the natural resources on the land and allow public access for recreational and hunting use. The county has attempted negotiations to purchase the easement for the public and to manage the forest’s timber, stated Frederickson, but all offers from the county have been rejected with no counter-offers from the landowners.
The piece of potential county easement land has been blocked off by a locked gate since 2006, and only adjacent landowners have the key. Prior to that, the land had been open to the public for hunting and recreational use for decades when the state owned the land.
Frederickson, who has attempted to reach an agreement with the landowners to purchase the 33-foot wide by 1,320-foot long parcel that lies over an existing roadway, asserts that the county has eminent domain rights if the landowners don’t allow access to the public and to the county for forestry maintenance via the easement.
“There are approximately 15 private landowners who own private property around the Memorial Forest,” said Frederickson, “which is used by landowners and their guests. I don’t think the taxpayer is interested in owning a forest for a few peoples’ private usage.”
Frederickson added that he spoke with former township supervisors who indicated that the road came up in discussion in the past and was understood that it was a township road. “It’s a public road because it hasn’t been vacated by Minnesota law,” stated Frederickson. Maps show that the road exists but the county is unable to identify what type of road it is. If the county can prove it’s a township road, they can show that it’s being illegally blocked, according to Frederickson.
Minnesota Land Trust Attorney Steve Quam, who represents the landowners adjacent to the memorial forest who have put their land in a land trust for conservation purposes and is obligated to oversee and enforce the terms of the easement under Minnesota Land Trust rules, addressed the county board. “The Land Trust definition says no right of ways should cross for industrial or commercial use,” he said.
Frederickson stated it was never the county’s intention to use the property for industrial or commercial use, but only to manage the mature forest on the land and open it up to the public. He added that in an April 23, 2018 letter from the Minnesota Land Trust Attorney, the county was threatened with a potential lawsuit under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, also adding that the county may be responsible for all litigation costs.
When discussing environmental impacts, County Commissioner Steve Hallan of Pine City stated that “not much damage is done in the winter time when logging occurs” in swampy areas such as this. He added, “Management needs to be done, and we were hoping we could have negotiated by now.” He also stated that the land trust, land owners and adjacent landowners (with the key to the gate) have allowed certain individuals to go across the property but not other people such as the county forester.
Concerned landowners came to the meeting to express their interests. One neighboring landowner said the reason a gate was put up was because a hunter who owns adjacent land was “ushered off his own land with a deer rifle”, indicating security concerns.
Another nearby landowner, and attorney for the property owners of the land in question, stated he would like to negotiate with the county.
Commissioner Hallan said, “This is the first time I've heard any reference to sitting down and figuring this out . . . why I pushed to make it a memorial forest and not tax-forfeited land is that it will be harder to get rid of (and develop) memorial forest than a tax-forfeited parcel. We also know there’s timber out there ready to be cut and will be worth much more if we can go down Mallard Road.”
Another property owner suggested that the county, not the township, should be responsible for any maintenance if it is taken over. He stated that the townships don’t have enough money for additional road maintenance.
County Commissioner Matt Ludwig of Sandstone stated his opinion, “Let the negotiations continue but move forward with a resolution for eminent domain.”
The board came to a consensus to have Frederickson draft a resolution that would allow the county authorization for eminent domain and said they will continue to be open to conversations with landowners and land trust for some sort of agreement. Other options, short of eminent domain, may include the county obtaining a road (called a cartway) from the township due to the forest being landlocked, negotiating a purchase or locating a road order due to the road being marked as a township road going back to 1916.
The resolution will be presented at the next county board meeting on Tuesday, May 15, at 10:00 a.m. at the Pine County History Museum in Askov.