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County helps reclaim wilderness through approval of DNR acquisition near Kabekona Lake

A "magical place" of pristine forestland south of Kabekona Lake, with an estimated value of $1 million, will be sold to the Minnesota Trust for Public Land for scientific research and aquatic management.

The 440-acre tract will eventually be resold to the Department of Natural Resources as its steward in perpetuity. The initial sale is expected to close at the end of this month.

Hubbard County commissioners gave a unanimous blessing of the project to preserve the land "as a site of high biodiversity significance."

The land includes lowland forests and swamps, a rich variety of trees and iron springs that seep into Lester Lake.

Called the Lester Lake Scientific and Natural Area and Aquatic Management Area, the property is currently owned by Bill and Steve Bieloh. Bill Bieloh is a Walker resident and the promoter of the Moondance Jam summer festivals.

The DNR manages property adjacent to the tract and has tried to acquire this parcel previously, said Mark Carlstrom, the DNR's Area Forestry Supervisor.

"I always felt it would be a shame to see that disturbed," Carlstrom told the board. "The property owners did an excellent job of maintaining its natural state. I'm proud that we can preserve something that's truly, truly natural. It is truly a magical place to be. There's no other place like it in Hubbard County.

"I suspect, with an exhaustive search, we're going to find some plants and maybe animals that are probably extremely rare simply because that area has not had any activity there for 100 years," Carlstrom said.

The land will be open to the public for hunting, hiking, nature observation, bird watching and classroom study.

There will be carry-in access to Lester Lake. The DNR may try to manage the lake with fishing regulations because of its small size and propensity to be over-fished.

"We want to protect the rare natural features of the property," said Bob McGillivray, senior project manager for the Trust.

"I wholeheartedly support the project," said Hubbard County board chair Lyle Robinson.

More than a dozen residents from the Kabekona Lake Association and Kabekona Lake Foundation applauded as the vote passed unanimously. The Foundation has donated $60,000 toward the purchase of the property.

"We hope this will be a match for other funding sources," said Steve Rogness, treasurer for the Foundation. "The citizens that live around it care for it passionately."

Rogness snowshoes through the area in the winter, he said.

The Trust, in a complicated financial deal, took out an option on the land and is facilitating the purchase after it conducted due diligence of the property through an appraisal, an environmental assessment and title investigation.

It is in the process of cobbling together financing including a Conservation Partners Legacy grant for $350,000 and a grant from Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

"There'll be a number of sources of funding and some of it will come from the Scientific and Natural Area program as there'll be some from fisheries," McGillivray said.

The purchase price won't be disclosed until the closing, but McGillivray said it would be purchased at "fair market value."

The DNR will repurchase the land from the Trust with the monies raised, he said.

By state law the county has to approve the use as an SNA.

"Their decision, why they would do that or not do that, is if they feel the loss of revenues to the county would be a detriment, they can make that case," said Peter Buessler regional manager of ecological resources for the DNR.

"I have to ask the hard question as to how it will affect Hubbard County's tax base," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

The purchase by the non-profit entity would take approximately $12,000 off the county tax rolls, said Buessler.

Once the DNR controls the land, the state gives the county Payments in Lieu of Taxes. PILTs generally reimburse counties around 90 percent of the tax amount, which Robinson said the county taxpayers could easily afford for what they are getting in return.

"I'm wondering why you don't do more of these," commissioner Don Carlson asked the group.