Carrying a message from the grasslands to board rooms
Passionate about the value of public lands, the Minnesota DNR's Southern Region Director Scott Roemhildt is as determined about getting to county board meeting rooms as he is about getting outdoors to hunt pheasants. He works to build relationships and straighten out misconceptions about how counties are compensated for public lands.
Scott Roemhildt never misses a pheasant opener, passionate as he is about the sport and the opportunity to hike the open grasslands of southern Minnesota under an autumn sky.
With the very same determination, he never passes up an invitation to step into the confines of a fluorescent-lit meeting room for the opportunity to meet with a county board of commissioners.
Roemhildt, southern region director with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, knows the connection. His goal is to build relationships with elected officials and let them know about the importance of public lands in the working landscape of southern Minnesota.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to his in-person visits with county boards, but Roemhildt said he’s hopeful of resuming them soon. Along with explaining the complexities of the DNR and building relationships, Roemhildt uses the visits to explain how counties are compensated annually with Payment In Lieu of Taxes on those public lands.
His goal, he said, is to “get around the myths and misinformation” about PILT. Membership on county boards changes, and many newly elected board members arrive to their roles with a limited understanding of how it all works.
The first myth he works to bust is the biggest. “Hear it all the time. Counties don’t get anything back on the land the state purchases,” said Roemhildt.
Dating back to the 1930s, the state has compensated counties for the public lands it administers. The current version of PILT began in 1979. In most cases, counties receive an annual payment on public lands that exceeds what the property tax would be on that land, said the regional director.
Last year the state paid out $36 million in PILT to counties. It’s dispersed to counties as part of a lump sum payment of state funds to counties, so many may not always realize how much PILT represents of the total, he explained.
PILT revenues are consistent, and have never been reduced since the current program began. They are based on the county's assessed value of the land; the lands are reassessed every six years , he explained.
One of the misconceptions out there is that the state owns much more land than is the reality, according to Roemhildt. When he asks county commissioners, most say they believe the DNR owns about five to 10 percent of their land base.
Actually, 97 percent of the land in southern Minnesota is privately owned. The DNR administers about two percent of the land as public lands, mainly as Wildlife Management Areas , Aquatic Management Areas , and state parks . The amount of public lands in the 32 counties of the southern region ranges from just under one percent in some counties to just over four percent in a few. Most are around that two percent level, he said.
As for the notion that the state is gobbling up large amounts of land, the reality is this: It turns down 87 percent of the lands offered for sale to it.
Roemhildt said lands considered for purchase by the state must meet a minimum four of six goals set for acquisitions. One of the top goals is to provide close-to-home outdoor recreation opportunities. Goals also include protecting significant or rare natural resources and water resources; helping us mitigate and adapt to climate change; and expanding access to existing public lands along with creating larger, contiguous blocks of public lands for their benefits to wildlife.
There are simpler but equally important goals as well. When he was a youth, Roemhildt said he could put his BB gun across the handlebars of his bike and pedal to a place to hunt. Providing places for young people to discover the outdoors remains an important purpose of public lands.
These lands require little in the way of county services, but do benefit the county economically, he added. State parks can show the numbers of visitors coming through the gates, and that makes it easy to explain the economic spin-offs.
There is no way to track the number of visitors to Wildlife Management Areas, but the pandemic has made it clear to more than hunters just how popular these lands are. Along with traditional hunting activities, WMAs are seeing an increasing number of visitors who enjoy everything from hiking and bird-watching to snowshoeing and foraging for natural plants. Roemhildt can attest to that: He lamented that he is getting beat to some of his favorite spots for finding morels.
Roemhildt almost exclusively hunts public lands, and without a doubt, he saw more hunters chasing pheasants on them last year. He had to drive by more than a few WMAs during last year’s pheasant hunting season because he saw others were already walking them.
But that’s OK, he said. “The more people that use the land and understand what it’s about, the more that can support it,” he explained.
For that every same reason, he’s looking forward to when he can get back inside those meeting rooms and have in-person visits with elected officials about the importance of public lands. They have a constituency to represent, and public lands play a critical role in the quality of life for their residents, he explained.