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Beltrami County Board: Lucachick questions wetland banking

Two former wild rice farmers could make nearly $800,000 converting their north Waskish paddies back to wetlands, and that bothers Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick.

Normally a routine matter, a wetland banking application by John Erickson and Peter Olson of Bemidji was pulled from the County Board's consent agenda Tuesday night by Lucachick.

Erickson and Olson, owners/operators of Agassiz Wild Rice, applied for a permit to create a wetland banking site of about 146 acres of land which had been used for rice paddy production.

The board approved the application on a 4-1 vote, with Lucachick dissenting.

He grilled County Environmental Services Director Bill Patnaude about the application and also about the wetland banking program.

Under the program administered by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, a landowner can restore wetlands and put those acres into a wetland bank, allowing someone else whose development destroys wetlands to purchase wetlands credits from the bank.

"This could be quite lucrative, can't it?" Lucachick asked Patnaude.

After hesitating several seconds, Patnaude answered, "Yes ... but only if they qualify for the program."

"Still, it is lucrative," Lucachick said. "You can harvest wild rice until it's no longer profitable and then put the land into the wetlands bank and make more than wild ricing."

True, Patnaude said, but adding that the program is more complicated than that. Wetlands must be restored fully, meaning that Olson and Erickson will have to remove dams and irrigation systems on the land and restore it to its natural setting before it can be banked.

And, he said, they can only claim 15 percent the first year, and perhaps 35 to 40 percent the second year. "A lot of landowners think they get 100 percent the first year, but they can't."

Lucachick then wanted to know how much Olson and Erickson can earn.

"It's public information," Patnaude said. He gave an estimate, but later in the meeting produced a list of all Minnesota counties assigning wetland credit values, with Beltrami County's value at $5,442 an acre.

The value by county "is based on the average agricultural land values from the state Department of Revenue," Patnaude said,, adding that BWSR controlled the wetland credit values.

"That means that if 100 acres were bought as credits, they'd potentially get $500,000," said Lucachick, shaking his head. "I could see it if this were in the same watershed, but these credits can be sold all over the state."

In the case of Erickson and Olson with 146 acres, it could mean $794.532 and they would still own the land.

"That's because Minnesota has a rule of no net loss of wetland," said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, who is on the BWSR Board. In some cases in southern Minnesota, the loss of one acre of wetland means that it must be replaced by two acres or credits purchased.

"And we're on the low end," Commissioner Jim Heltzer said, looking at the BWSR value list. The wetland value in Dakota County is $34,482 an acre and $85,796 in Hennepin County. Conversely, the wetland value in Lake of the Woods County is $3,720 and Roseau County $2,964.

The Waskish paddy had gone through scrutiny prior to reaching the County Board, Patnaude said, and was recommended for wetland banking by the Technical Evaluation Team that studied the site.

The County Board, at its afternoon work session, discussed how to proceed in the wake of County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos' resignation.

The board decided on an interim basis to contract with Cass County Highway Department for highway engineer services on a temporary basis until a new highway engineer is hired.

According to state law, a certified engineer is needed to sign off on road construction and maintenance projects, County Administrator Tony Murphy said, adding he's been in contact with Cass County and that the request would involve about 10 hours a week at $100 an hour.

The day-to-day management of the department would be done by the department supervisors, Murphy said. "We are fortunate to have good supervisors who can do the day to day management. We can do just fine for a short period of time."

If Cass County decides not to take on the extra temporary duties, commissioners said they will ask retired Beltrami County Highway Engineer Jim Worcester to take over the position until a permanent highway engineer can be hired.

:I think we can save a buck if Cass County does it," said Lucachick, noting that two high priority road projects are in the southeast corner of the county and would partner with the Chippewa National Forest and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe - both of which have relationships with Cass County.

"On an interim basis, the Cass County engineer could be here one or two days a week," Lucachick, an architect familiar with civil engineers, said.

The permanent position is posted, and commissioners say response should be good, given the economy. Murphy said he'd hoped a new permanent highway engineer would be on board in June or July.

During the regular meeting, commissioners held a public meeting for a request by Stan and Sheri Mistic to increase their feedlot capacity from 1,000 head of cattle to 1,135 head. No one spoke.

They also amended the bylaws of the Beltrami County Park and Trail Advisory Council to add two at-large members, change their terms to two-year terms and limit them to two consecutive terms.

Those who previously applied for the single at-large position will automatically be considered for the two new spots, and new applications will be taken for the next two weeks.

In other business, commissioners awarded a contract to Kramer Leas Deleo of Brainerd for remonumentation of survey corners in Eland, Waskish, Grant Valley and Northern townships at $180,387.

The firm was the lowest responsible bidder of eight firms that submitted requests for qualifications for professional services. Heltzer said he would prefer a local firm, Northern Engineering and Consulting Inc. of Bemidji, in second with a bid of $191.402, but the panel which studied the bids recommended Kramer unanimously, a panel that included two commissioners.