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Many lawmakers want the state to buy rights for public access to forest lands, shown in orange, in northern Minnesota. A state council is considering the request.

Outdoors panel considers forest plan

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ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators are considering spending millions of dollars to keep 187,227 acres of northern Minnesota state forests the same as they are today.

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"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said Monday.

But legislators need to approve spending the money, estimated for the time being at $50 million. The state would not buy the land, but the funds would allow the public to use the land as now occurs - for everything from bicycling to hunting.

Logging would be allowed to continue on the land - in Itasca, St. Louis, Koochiching and Aitkin counties - but development for homes and businesses would be banned.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said the proposal also would keep the private landowner paying taxes to the state and local governments.

The proposal is to use funds from a sales tax increase that Minnesota voters last year approved for outdoors and arts projects. A legislator-citizen council recommends to lawmakers how to spend the funds, and that council now is considering the forest plan.

The property is owned by Finland-based UPM-Kymmene. The company owns Blandin paper mill in Grand Rapids, which along with 16 other paper mills uses logs from the land.

If approved, the project would get a bulk of the $70 million available from the sales tax increased this year, but about $300 million in projects have been requested.

Saxhaug said "fragmentation" of northern Minnesota's forests is hurting existing uses as plots of land now open to the public are being sold off piecemeal and often closed to the public.

The proposal would keep open more land than is in the entire state parks system, according to Executive Director Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

"It allows continuity," he said.

Dick Peterson of the Department of Natural Resources said that negotiations with the land's owner are continuing. While the state used $50 million as a "placeholder" for the cost, Peterson said, no price agreement has been reached.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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