“Any county may by resolution of the county board set aside tax-forfeited land which is more suitable for forest purposes than for any other purpose and dedicate said lands as a memorial forest and manage the same on forestry principles…Any tax-forfeited land which has been included in a memorial forest established in any county under the provisions of subdivision 2, and which is found more suitable for other purposes may by resolution of the county board be withdrawn from the forest for disposal as tax-forfeited land if the commissioner of natural resources approves the sale of such land.”
In 1971, Itasca County followed the above Minnesota statute and established The Lt. Franklin Danyluk and Sgt. Emmett Loucks Memorial Forest in honor of two of the region’s fallen WWII soldiers. The easily-accessible 119 acres is popular with the public for all manner of outdoor recreation, including hiking and hunting. Yet despite strenuous opposition from the public, the Itasca County Board recently determined that a housing development is a more suitable use of that beautiful land rich with flora and fauna, voting Tuesday to transfer the veterans memorial forest to a non-union home builder from the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area.
Of course, the Board’s action wasn’t that transparent. The land exchange requested by Bradley Dumonceaux and approved by a 3 -2 vote of the Itasca County Board was presented as a request from a private landowner who owned property adjacent to the veterans memorial forest lands and wanted the additional parcels for hunting and recreation. But the record reveals that Dumonceaux personally owns neither the land adjacent to the Danyluk-Loucks Memorial Forest nor the private property offered in the trade and suggests a more sinister motive: Profit at the public expense.
Bradley Dumonceaux owns Progressive Builders, a 20-year old company that, according to the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, has never built homes with union labor. Like many other metro area developers, Dumonceaux has in recent years been aggressively buying lake and other prime property in northern Minnesota, including Third River Township in Itasca County. County land records show that since January 2005, his Cottonwood Acres LLC has acquired approximately 564 acres in Third RiverTownship, including all of Upper South Twin Lake and some land adjacent to the veterans memorial forest (other adjacent property is owned by the state and federal governments). County records also reveal that the relatively inaccessible 154 acres of private property in the distant Bearville Township offered by Dumonceaux for exchange is actually owned by John and Margaret McCoy. As part of the proposed land exchange, the home builder submitted to the county board a purchase agreement with the McCoys contingent to the land exchange being approved. While nothing in Minnesota statutes requires that one proposing a land exchange owns the property to be traded, it does give an indication as to just how badly Dumonceaux wants the veterans memorial forest lands.
Indeed, Danyluk-Loucks Memorial Forest has been in Dumonceaux’s sights since May 2004, when he unsuccessfully tried to buy the land from the county. Since that time, Dumonceaux has relentlessly pursued a land exchange, presenting numerous proposals involving various private properties (including parcels he personally owns in Bearville Township) with no success until Tuesday. Controversy has surrounded Dumonceaux’s proposals over the years, including charges of conflicts of interest and lack of transparency that date back to 2005. Recent reports that the Board replaced a local appraisal of public and private lands not favorable to Dumonceaux with one from a Wisconsin appraiser he selected, and the fact that Commissioner Davin Tinquist (who pushed hard to pass this land exchange for the home builder), owns Cohasset Mill and Lumber Company have heightened those concerns.
But the county board’s approval of the proposal is only the first step towards stripping the public of their cherished veterans memorial forest in Third River Township. This land exchange must first be reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources to be sure it complies with state rules and regulations governing Class B land exchanges, and then it must be approved by both the commissioner of the DNR and by the Land Exchange Board. The land exchange process is outlined below:
– Itasca County submits the proposal and related documents to the DNR Division of Lands and Minerals for review of statutory compliance with Class B land exchanges. Public comments about the land exchange may be directed to that office as well.
– The northeast regional DNR office in Grand Rapids reviews the proposal for its impact on natural resources. How the property is to be used will be of concern to the various departments. The review generally takes 4 – 6 weeks.
– If the DNR determines the County’s proposal does not comply with statutes governing Class B land exchanges, it is sent back to the County.
– If the DNR determines the proposal does comply with statutes, the review and any comments received from the public are forwarded to the DNR commissioner.
– The DNR commissioner will take into consideration both the agency review and public input and either reject or approve the proposal. If approved, the proposal goes to the Land Exchange Board.
– The Land Exchange Board consists of the governor, attorney general and auditor, and can either reject or approve the land exchange. The Board meets quarterly, with their next meeting scheduled in June. A unanimous vote is required in order for a land exchange to be approved.
Despite strong opposition from area residents, from citizens who enjoy using the land and from veterans who view the Danyluk-Loucks Memorial Forest as a legacy, the Itasca County Board inexplicably approved a land exchange that gives veterans memorial forest land to a scab metro area home builder. In view of the facts, no reasonable and prudent person could possibly believe for one minute this land is wanted for personal hunting and recreation. That an outsider like Dumonceaux would use the culture of northern Minnesota as a smokescreen for his intended use of the land is despicable; that 3 members of the Itasca County Board would aid and abet this deception of the public is absolutely outrageous and all should be held accountable by their constituents. The question now is who will ultimately prevail: Local residents who are determined to retain access to their land for the common good and to honor the memory of their fallen soldiers, or a packsacker who selfishly wants to build pricey homes with scab labor at their expense?