WILLMAR — Over the past few years, Kandiyohi County's popularity as a hunting destination has continued to grow, especially on wildlife management areas, public land managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that is set aside for wildlife conservation.

According to DNR statistics, Kandiyohi County is the top wildlife management area hunting destination in the state for deer and the second most popular for pheasant and duck.

"It is one of the key spots people come to," said Catherine Fouchi, DNR Regional Planner based in New Ulm. "It brings a little bit of money into the county as well."

Fouchi, along with Ben Schaefer from the DNR's Division of Land and Minerals, attended the Jan. 21 meeting of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners to give an update on the work the DNR does in the county.

"It is a fairly complex organization," with seven different divisions, Fouchi said of the DNR. Willmar is located in the Southwest Region, one of four DNR regions in the state.

Within the county, the DNR manages 8,900 acres of state-owned land.

"Which is about 1.8 percent of (the county's) land base," Fouchi said. "That land base includes a lot of different types of units that are used for different things."

Schaefer explained that the DNR receives hundreds of calls a year from private citizens wanting to sell land to the DNR. He said only offers of land that fit in the DNR's strategic land management process are accepted.

"At least in our region, about 86 percent of the time, of all the inquiries we receive, the DNR says no to," Schaefer said.

DNR is responsible for 13 aquatic management areas, 40 water access sites, 26 wildlife management areas, 10 fishing piers, Glacial Lakes State Trail and Sibley State Park in Kandiyohi County.

"To manage and operate those, we have about 22 full-time employees that report to work in your county, and nine seasonal employees," Fouchi said.

One unique DNR operation in Kandiyohi County is the Historic New London State Fish Hatchery. Approximately 25 million walleye eggs are hatched each spring, which, in turn, help stock many of Kandiyohi County's lakes.

"It greatly increases the recreational angling in the county," Fouchi said.

The DNR also helps fund other recreation opportunities in Kandiyohi County through grant programs. For instance, the DNR helps fund 198 miles of snowmobile trails and pays private landowners for public walk-in access to hunting land.

The DNR also pays both counties and school districts through other programs, instead of the property taxes they would have received if the public land had been privately owned. In 2019, Kandiyohi County received a $185,312 payment in lieu of taxes, while schools in Kandiyohi County shared $449,200 from the School Trust Fund program.

"The DNR and the state of Minnesota do value education, our schools," Schaefer said.

Fouchi said much of what the DNR does supports the county's own water plan goals, including protecting and improving surface water quality along with managing and protecting groundwater.

Even with all the success, the DNR and its partners are still working to improve water quality in the southern half of the county, manage development around the lakes and continue to educate about and reduce the spread of aquatic invasive species.

"There are still some opportunities and challenges," Fouchi said.