The Aitkin County Natural Resources Advisory Committee met at Long Lake Conservation Center on Sept 14.

Township supervisors, soil and water conservation district managers, county land managers, federal land managers and county commissioners make up the NRAC.

In the meeting with modified seating arrangements, masked attendees and no refreshments, Assistant County Land Commissioner Dennis Thompson spoke about some of the ways the county continues to adapt to the continuing pandemic situation.

AUGUST TIMBER AUCTION

The Aug. 19 auction of timber on county forestlands was again a sealed-bid auction.

“Some people like the sealed-bid auctions; others don’t,” said Thompson. “Sealed-bid auctions tend to give smaller loggers a chance to compete without the intimidating presence of big logging/paper companies.”

One concern bidders shared about sealed-bid auctions was that they don’t know what other bids are received, which could lead to paying more than they would have had to at a live auction.

Commissioner Bill Pratt suggested that while the county is dealing with COVID-19, perhaps people who prefer live auctions could be better served if an auction could be modified to include spacing, masks and other recommended strategies to reduce the chance of spread. Thompson responded that the Land Department could definitely look into that.

A total of 17 tracts was sold. Revenue from the 16 tracts that were sold the day of the auction was $230,338.

“The good news is that timber markets continue to be strong,” Thompson said.

He shared that Verso Paper had shut its mill down in Duluth and another in Wisconsin, causing some of the wood that would have gone to the Wisconsin mill to be diverted to Duluth, but SAPPI in Cloquet seems to be buying and overall the timber sale did relatively well.

The average amount that tracts were bid up was 62%.  

“Loggers are not shying away from bidding, and they say that they have confidence that they will continue to have markets for wood,” Thompson said.

Aspen pulp and bolts averaged $34.45 per cord, remaining fairly stable at this good price. Most of the sales were aspen or aspen-birch clearcuts. Prices for red oak saw timber bolts have been declining of late; the retail price of sawn lumber is going up due to supply and demand.

Thompson said the December auction is an unknown at this point, but will probably be a sealed-bid as well.

“We are moving forward with a positive attitude about the future of logging and the industry,” he said.

SWCD

Aitkin Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Steve Hughes spoke to committee members about the drone the district had acquired to help provide perspective to landowners in the district who are doing forest management activities.  SWCD forester Cael  Fredrickson is licensed as a drone operator and can do flights as needed for resource management and planning, Hughes said.

LLCC

Aitkin county’s environmental learning center, Long Lake Conservation Center is shuttered and staffed with just a maintenance crew due to the pandemic.

Online or interactive learning is still being considered, but there are no plans for school visits this fall.

The education director for the center, Courtney Dowell, resigned recently.

“When we will hire a new lead educator, and what the position description will be is currently unknown,” Thompson said.

Future direction for the center will be a topic of county board discussion.

NRAC chair Bob Lake reminded the committee that the LLCC campus is still open for hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, bird watching and other outdoor experiences.

“Life memberships are available to LLCC, for supporters who want to make sure the center is maintained in good conditions so that it can open again in due course,” Lake said.

PARKS AND TRAILS

Campground revenues continue to be above the five-year average, even with the influence of COVID-19 closures. Year-to-date at the end of August was $23,241.

Summer all-terrain vehicle clubs were busier than usual with maintenance of trail systems. The county land department rented and operated a rubber-tracked carrier to spread material in damaged areas throughout the Rabey Line,  Hill City Connector, Lawler loops and Axtell Technical Riding Area.

The next meeting of the NRAC is planned for Monday, October 12. That meeting will be out of doors as members travel to look at resources in the county.

TAX-FORFEIT LAND ISSUES

Aitkin County has fewer problems with abandoned properties than many other counties, Thompson said,  but the land department has been dealing with two parcels, a house and garage in Swatara  and a house and outbuildings adjacent to County Rd. 5 and one mile south of Hwy. 210. Both needed asbestos remediation, but it was not a significant amount. The land department demolished all structures with the exception of a barn at the Kimberly site, which is being cleared and planted with grass mix.

Each of the two properties cost approximately $17,000 for abatement. The county had to pay for these demolition projects out of pocket and expects to recover the money when the land is sold at auction.

The Oct. 2 land auction will be held at 1 p.m. at the Aitkin County Fairgrounds to allow for safe spacing of the expected large number of attendees. Twenty-five tracts are being offered, including Quadna Mountain Lodge near Hill City.

Flyers were distributed and information will be published in the local newspapers. The information is also online at www.co.aitkin.mn.us/departments/land.

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