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Lake County conservation easement deal moves forward

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News Two Harbors,Minnesota 55616 http://www.twoharborsmn.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/7/0221/conservation0309.jpg?itok=AgeFMJpR
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Lake County conservation easement deal moves forward
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

More than 10,000 acres of land in Lake County will be protected under a conservation easement deal the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources struck this winter with one of the largest private land owners in the state.

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The DNR announced this week it will pay $5.67 million for a permanent easement with Roy Marlow to protect 10,581 of his nearly 40,000 acres in the county from any type of development. While Marlow maintains ownership of the land, it will remain open to the public for recreation use. Marlow must maintain the mostly forest land under forest management guidelines.

Dick Peterson, the DNR's Forest Legacy program coordinator, said the money for the easement comes from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the pool of tax money created when Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment in 2008.

While the volume of land in the deal isn't unusual, Peterson said the area is. Most of the DNR's forest land easements come in a belt of lumbered land in Koochiching and Itasca counties.

"We've moved out from the core area of the past," Peterson said.

While the scattered parcels don't have a lot of unique features, they were chosen because most are next to state or county land, Peterson said. They contain a lot of lake and stream shores and some state trails.

"It's a good block of habitat land," he said. For the DNR, he said, it's a way to protect some moose range as biologists try to figure out why that population is waning in the state.

He said the DNR paid $180,000 below the appraised value for its 10,000 acres. He said the land was appraised twice.

"We buy at fair market price," Peterson said.

Marlow said he is glad to have five years of negotiations come to an end.

"It was really hard to keep this deal together," he said. The economic downturn enticed him to sell, but he kept on in the negotiations because he learned to respect the goals of land administrators from the DNR and Lake County. He mentioned Peterson as a key to the deal getting done.

"We kept this deal going," Marlow said. "It's a miracle."

Marlow made headlines in 2008 when he purchased 39,000 acres of land in Lake County from Potlatch Corp. He paid nearly $15 million for what was 17 percent of the county and promised then that he would preserve as much of it as possible and keep it open to the public. The deal also included 3,700 acres in St. Louis County.

He became the fourth-largest forest land owner in northern Minnesota.

Marlow lost a battle in state Supreme Court in 2010 when he contested how Lake County appraised the value of his parcels. He wanted the tax to reflect his purchase price while the county argued that each parcel had to be appraised separately. The court agreed with the county, which taxed him for $45 million worth of property.

Before the five-year DNR easement negotiations could close, Peterson said, Marlow had to be current on the back taxes he disputed from 2008 through 2010, estimated to be more than $500,000.

At one point, Marlow offered to sell 10,000 acres to Lake County for $1.3 million. As the tax issue lingered, the sale negotiations languished. Marlow said the potential sale to Lake County was not connected to the DNR negotiations and more of an overall strategy to solve the tax issue.

The Lake County Board approved the preliminary DNR-Marlow deal in November. The easement land will remain taxable.

Commissioner Rich Sve said county officials still are having conversations with Marlow about land consolidation, but nothing specific is on the table.

"It's part of our long-range plan," he said of working with private landowners and state and federal forestry officials to bring some cohesion to land use in the northern reaches of the county. "It's the grand land plan."

Peterson said the DNR's only connection with the Marlow and Lake County interactions was the tax issue. With it resolved, the DNR moved forward.

Marlow could sell the land that is now under the easement, but the restrictions would stay in place for any new owner, Peterson said.

"These things are difficult," Marlow said, but he's glad to see the land preserved for generations. "I was convinced this was the right thing to do. We didn't want to fragment the forest."

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