Houston County commissioners approved the sale of two parcels of private land to the State of Minnesota on Aug. 5. Once the deal is completed, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will use the properties to create the Brownsville Bluff Scientific and Natural Area, a brand-new entity.

“The purpose of this acquisition is to protect a threatened snake species, the rat snake, and also protect habitat for two other species, the milk snake and the peregrine falcon,”  Larissa Mottl said.

Mottl is central region SNA program coordinator for the MNDNR. She appeared along with Jamie Edwards, who serves as a nongame wildlife manager for the same agency.

MNDNR has already signed an option to purchase an 83 acre parcel west of Highway 26 in Section 2, South Brownsville Township. In addition, the sale of a 208-acre parcel that lies adjacent and north of that land is being negotiated. The habitat includes steep bluffs and outcrops covered with southern dry-mesic oak-hickory woodland and southern mesic oak-basswood forest.

With only three Minnesota locations now listed on the Natural Heritage Information System, “the rat snake (aka western rat snake) was considered to be gone from the state of Minnesota,” Edwards said. “It was recently re-discovered.... It's our largest snake species, and it can get to be seven feet. It's solid black, and sometimes has some mottling, but has a very white chin.” She added that the species is non-venomous, “extremely docile,” and spends most of its time in trees.

“They are really adept at climbing,” Edwards added.

A recent survey revealed 12 to 15 animals, but there could be twice that number living on the site. “We're not talking about tons and tons of snakes,” she said.

Property taxes would be replaced by PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) forwarded by the state. The smaller parcel currently generates $1,370 annually and would receive $1,900 from PILT. The second parcel had taxes of $5,210, and is estimated to be worth between $4,500 and $5,000 in annual PILT dollars.

The board asked Mottl to contact the township directly prior to the purchase. 

The area will be open to the public, but activities will be limited to non-motorized recreation. That would include hiking and the use of snowshoes or skis.  An existing grant-in-aid snowmobile trail crosses the southeast corner of the land, and will remain open, however. No camping, campfires, trapping, or biking will be permitted.

“Some form of deer hunting is likely to be allowed at this site in such a way (as) to avoid disturbance to the rat snakes,” Mottl also stated in a written report.

E-cigs proposals become law

Following a public hearing, the board voted to add two county ordinances to regulate electronic cigarettes. The laws will treat electronic delivery devices the same as ordinary cigarettes insofar as possession, sale and consumption.

Eight persons spoke at the hearing. All favored the ordinance changes, and one (chief deputy Scott Yeiter) noted that electronic delivery devices can also be used with illegal substances.

Most of the speakers hailed from the county's Public Health department, and several stated that e-cigarettes are currently marketed to younger audiences. The devices sometimes wind up poisoning underage users, Renee Fuller (a summer intern at Houston County Public Health) said. Flavors include banana split, bubblegum, cotton candy, and rice crispy treats, she noted.

Houston County Public Health director Mary Marchel summed up the situation: “If it looks like a cigarette, if it smokes or 'vapes' like a cigarette, and it addicts like a cigarette, then it should be regulated like a cigarette,” she said.

Public comment

Four persons spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Ken Tschumper of La Crescent Township stated that the MNDNR has correctly chosen to enforce state law by stopping work at the Erickson silica sand mine until a trout stream setback permit is issued. He urged the board to rescind the Erickson mine conditional use permit (CUP) because the recent review process was “flawed, poorly done, inadequately reviewed by the Planning Commission, and doesn't comply with state regulations.”

Michael Fields of Winnebago Township said that the board needs to respect the intent of the Houston County Comprehensive Land Use Plan by protecting agriculture and tourism, rather than favoring mining interests.

Sue Van Gorp of Yucatan Township urged the board to let Erickson “fight his own battles” with MNDNR rather than spending taxpayer dollars to take the state to court. “If Erickson wants to defend his illegal permit, he has every right to do so,” she stated.

Donna Buckbee, also of Yucatan Township, reported that citizens who have taken a stand against silica sand mining have been threatened, and the situation is “escalating.” She said that she feared, in particular, for the safety of neighbor Bryan Van Gorp.

CUP granted, another tabled

Commissioners voted to grant a CUP to Bob Koch of Koch Dairy, Winnebago Township. The document will allow a feedlot to expand from 274 animal units to 482. Another CUP was tabled for a future meeting, since it did not appear on the agenda. That consists of the annual review of a permit that allows Jim and Tom Welscher to perform “substantial land alteration and mineral extraction” in Section 30 of Caledonia Township.

Final payments for roadwork

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski asked the board to approve final payments on three roadwork projects. The first two were related to 2013 flooding. Just over $1 million in repairs to County State Aid Highway 12 were performed by Griffen Construction, along with $124,360 in repairs to “several deficient bridges.” Both payments were OK'd. Bruening Rock Products' bill for $232,580 in annual shouldering (adding gravel) was also approved.

Other news

County auditor Char Meiners reported that Houston County received $12,696 in 2014 from MNDNR to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species at waterway access sites, and is set to get another $28,058 for the same work in 2015. By consensus, the matter was referred to the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District.

Commissioner Judy Storlie reported that a large group of volunteers has finished setting up a new set of playground equipment at Wildcat Park. “The campground is just a jewel,” she said.