OLIVIA — The Renville County Board of Commissioners voiced displeasure with the federal government’s revenue-sharing payments for conservation lands by sending a letter to Minnesota's Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council in July, before the council begins its process of recommending projects for funding.
The letter brought Scott Glup, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Litchfield, to the commissioners' work session Sept. 3. Glup outlined the federal government’s revenue-sharing system for land acquisitions and heard the commissioners’ concerns.
In the July 23 letter to staff of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, the commissioners said they reviewed 2020 proposals for the county, and the county "respectfully requests that no such projects be undertaken without PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) funding. We cannot support projects that do not include an ongoing funding source, as these would place an additional tax burden on our constituents.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service manages 1,956.54 acres of land for conservation in Renville County, the vast majority of it as part of waterfowl production areas open to public hunting. The acquisitions represent three-tenths of 1 percent of the county’s land base. The lands include both wetlands and grasslands, all providing habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, according to Glup. The vast majority of Fish and Wildlife Service acquisitions occur only after landowners contact the service expressing their interest, he added.
Based on 1935 federal legislation, the Fish and Wildlife Service makes annual, revenue-sharing payments to local government units on the lands to compensate for the loss in property taxes. The legislation called for paying three-quarters of 1 percent of the appraised value of the property. The lands are re-appraised every five years, based on the use of the land prior to its acquisition for conservation.
In the past 35 years, the funding Congress approves each year for revenue-sharing has been shrinking relative to the amount needed. Payments are made to local governments by divvying up those available funds.
Glup said Congress authorized up-front trust fund payments to local governments in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas when acquiring property to make up for the shortfall that has resulted. The up-front money is to be placed in an interest-bearing account and used to supplement annual revenue-sharing payments.
The formula for awarding the trust fund monies is based on Treasury bond rates and the interest earnings over time should make up the difference.
Renville County Commissioner Bob Fox told Glup that he doesn’t believe the trust program works. He said he would not support future Fish and Wildlife Service land acquisitions in the county until the system is made right.
“Until you get that reworked, I will never support a piece that comes in there,” he said. “And I want to support them,” he added.
He also urged Glup to push for changes to the system. The Fish and Wildlife Service project leader said he cannot lobby for what would require congressional action to change the system.
The commissioners also voiced their concerns that Fish and Wildlife Service lands are not subject to costs for maintaining drainage systems. Their concern is focused on a 700-acre tract southeast of Sacred Heart. Commissioner Rick Schmidt said two farms immediately downstream of the land have experienced flooded fields. He and other commissioners acknowledged that consecutive years of above-normal precipitation have caused drainage issues throughout the county’s farm lands.
Glup pointed out that the water flowing from the waterfowl production area lands would be going to the downstream farms no matter what. He said there are numerous studies showing that conservation grasslands and wetlands absorb and hold more water than cropland, and they catch sediment. He also pointed out that the current wet cycle has filled wetlands to the brim.
The federal government does not take on liability for maintaining drainage systems, Glup told the commissioners. The systems do not provide benefits to the conservation lands.
Commissioner Randy Kramer said water issues downstream of a waterfowl production area site on the county’s east side have “left a bad taste” for downstream neighbors, who would like to see the Fish and Wildlife Service do something to address the concerns.
It’s not certain whether the commissioners’ concerns will lead them to oppose any possible future acquisitions by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the county. Not all of the 2020 proposals in front of the Lessard-Sams council would involve land acquisition.
“We are not against if a willing landowner wants to sell to you,” Kramer told Glup. “But we have to make it fair to the other landowners around there and the drainage system. Agriculture is dominant. (It’s) what drives the county,” he said.