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What is the process of land acquisition for habitat? Part 1

The Outdoors
Scott Rall
Scott Rall, outdoors columnist

I was asked a while back about what goes into the decisions made when land is purchased for habitat restoration. This is a topic many folks are curious about so I thought I would explain in a multi-week column just what happens when new public lands are added in your county.

When you see a new Wildlife Management Area pop up in your area, it’s hard to believe that many of them have been in the making for many years. In my experience doing this sort of work, I estimate that almost all of the new public lands in Minnesota are a result of a private land owner contacting either the Minnesota DNR, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, or a conservation organization like Pheasants Forever.

State wildlife resource managers and non-profits like Pheasants Forever only buy land from a willing seller. Never in my 45 years has there ever been an eminent domain proceeding to acquire public lands for hunting purposes. Most of the parcels that are brought forward by willing sellers are actually turned down. More than 90 percent of all offers to sell to the Minnesota DNR are declined due to those parcels not meeting the habitat goals used to determine what would be a good fit and what wouldn’t.

Reasons that a particular parcel might be declined are many. If the parcel is very small or isolated and far from any other habitat or existing public lands, that is one of the more common reasons to pass on considering a particular parcel. Small isolated parcels are not economical to maintain. Other potential acres might be too close to a busy highway or too close to a town or community. Parcels that are land locked or otherwise don’t have a solid public access are most often declined as well.

Attributes that make a parcel attractive for consideration are many. If the spot has restorable wetlands on it, this gives it a higher priority. If it connects to other existing public habitat, this will increase its desirability. Larger habitat complexes have a higher carrying capacity than the same number of acres split up into, say, five or six smaller spots that are 3 miles apart from one another.

If there is any of the rare native prairie left in Minnesota included in a potential acquisition, the prospects get much brighter. All of the possible tracts are scored twice per year, and a priority list is compiled. The highest wildlife value parcels will be at the top of the list, and others with less potential will end up at the bottom of the list.

The willing seller is then contacted by an acquisition project coordinator, and the process is begun. I have been involved as an acquisition coordinator with over 50 of these projects all over the southern half of Minnesota. A meeting is set up with the potential seller and a physical onsite visit is completed. This visit puts eyes on the ground looking for all sorts of things. Is there existing habitat? What condition is it in? Are there any junk piles of ravines full of chemical cans or other possible pollution concerns? Do there appear to be any encroachment issues? Background information is compiled with information from the seller. Are there any acres in CRP? Did the farmer sign up for a wind or solar easement? These competing interests can outweigh otherwise good wildlife habitat values. Are there any other forms of easements that need to be considered? Some tracts have lifelong CREP or RIM easements for which many of the most common sources of grant funding will not be allowed.

The site visit also looks for other potential dangers. An open well would be an example. Burn pits and abandoned appliances or junk cars would need attention before any considerations or offers could be considered. An interesting question on the site visit form asks if there are any human remains buried on the site.  These would obviously need further investigation in order to be handled properly. More than we would all like to admit is the possibility that an old abandoned structure might have used or look like it was used for meth production. These areas can remain toxic for a very long time.

Other documents like a copy of the deed, property tax forms, and copies of any contracts on the property are collected so an appraiser can have all the necessary information to prepare an appraisal.

We will start next week on how that appraisal process works and what steps will follow its competition. Until then, get outside. Fall is getting closer.

Scott Rall, Worthington, is a habitat conservationist, avid hunting and fishing enthusiast and is president of Nobles County Pheasants Forever. He can be reached at