Three years ago foresters for St. Louis County's Lands and Mineral Department reported a startling increase in the number of big, enclosed deer stands they were seeing on county land open to public hunting.

The stands - some with stairways, roofs, generators, lights, heaters and windows - were illegal, but apparently that hadn't been made clear to many hunters.

And it wasn't just elaborate construction. Some hunters were planting crops on public land to attract deer - so-called food plots. Others were cutting down trees to get unobstructed shots at deer - not just a few saplings but dozens of mature trees to create shooting lanes hundreds of yards long.

The problem rose to the level of a county board workshop, and after a News Tribune story ran, the issue drew national headlines and attention.

"We're getting over-built. We're seeing mansions out there; basically hunting shacks on stilts," Bob Krepps, St. Louis County land commissioner at the time, told the News Tribune in 2012.

Since then, however, county foresters have been tearing down those hunting shacks on stilts, and posting others with warnings that they won't be tolerated.

The Lands and Minerals Departments has developed a formal policy on what's allowed and what's not on the 900,000 acres of St. Louis County managed land.

Some of the deer "stands" were really cabins; one was 20 x 18 feet. Another, discovered on county land, appeared to be three stories tall. Those most egregious examples are being torn down.

"That was probably the biggest problem we had. Nobody knew the rules. We really hadn't developed any rules,'' said Jason Meyer, deputy county land commissioner. "Now that we've made it clear we have limits, it's getting better. We're posting warnings on the stands we find that are too much. Some guys are taking them down on their own. We're taking some down. I think we've got it under control."

The new policy still allows hunters to place permanent stands on county-managed tax forfeited land. But hunters are warned that if those stands are unoccupied, they are open to the public to use. And no one can claim the exclusive right to any portion of the forest simply by building a stand; any hunter can sit in any stand on county land.

Moreover, any stand with a roof or cover and any walls must be disassembled by Dec. 31 and remain roofless and wall-less through Sept. 1. And any stand torn down needs to be fully removed, or the owner could be fined for illegal garbage dumping.

The county also is banning any cutting of trees for shooting lanes and any planting of crops to attract deer. Multiply thousands of deer stands with the hundreds of feet of cleared forest for shooting lanes and the total is adding up. Some of those shooting lanes are more than 30 feet wide and up to 700 feet long.

In one area of county land it's estimated that a group of hunters cleared more than six acres of forest combined for their 47 shooting lanes. Thats a lot of trees that the county can't sell, and that's money out of taxpayer's pockets.

One hunter was fined $139 for the timber he cut for shooting lanes, Meyer noted.

County officials say they are staying clear of the ethical issue of hunting from inside what is essentially a building - the fair chase debate - but they do feel a stake in the ethics and legality of claiming public land for private use.

"If they've built this elaborate deer stand are they going to be territorial about allowing other people in their area? Probably," Meyer noted.

The county has drawn a line on what will be tolerated without banning constructed stands altogether.

"We aren't against hunting. We aren't even against deer stands. But we don't want these big, unauthorized buildings in the woods," Meyer said. "So I think we've found a middle ground everyone can live with."

Several other public-land managers have stricter rules on their lands.

Carlton County bans any permanent deer stand attached to a tree in any way. Freestanding stands are allowed if the walls are not greater than 42 inches in height with a floor area under 32 square feet, said Greg Bernu, Carlton County land commissioner.

Bernu said the issue of permanent stands on public lands may be solving itself as hunters move to portable, factory-built stands.

"The local Chapter of MDHA (Minnesota Deer Hunters Association) in Carlton County supports a 'No permanent stand attached to trees' policy and has worked with new hunters about the benefits of portable stands," Bernu told the News Tribune. "I have seen a trend moving to the portables with very, very few new permanent stands recently constructed."

Crow Wing County bans all permanent deer stands on its forests. Cass County bans any kind of nails, bolts or screws and says any stands that have those or damage trees will be removed.

The Superior and Chippewa National Forests ban permanent stands but allow temporary stands to be left in the woods overnight, although they must be removed by the end of the deer hunting season.

The Minnesota DNR bans permanent stands where hunting is allowed in state parks or state Wildlife Management Areas, where portable stands can be used but must be removed each night.

The DNR - at least for now - allows permanent stands on state forest lands but discourages the use of nails. Permanent "structures" are illegal in state forests, which, like St. Louis County, means no roofs or walls. It's also illegal to cut any trees for shooting lanes in state forests.

Since St. Louis County drew attention to the issue three years ago, the DNR has mulled banning permanent stands on all 3.1 million acres in 58 state forests. The agency raised the issue at the annual DNR Roundtable meeting in January, with a preliminary recommendation from the Forestry Division that all permanent stands be banned on state forests.

Craig Schmidt, assistant director for forestry protection of the DNR's Forestry Division, said the DNR can probably move on its own to develop rules to ban permanent stands in state forests, but it also may seek legislative support.

Either way, he said, there will be ample chance for public input.

"We received a lot of comments (after the Roundtable meeting) both for and against, and need to do some outreach work before promulgating a plan," Schmidt said. "I don't anticipate any changes until the 2017 legislative session at the earliest."

Meyer and Bernu said it's likely many counties will adopt whatever final rule the DNR develops for state forests, if only for consistency's sake.

"I think we're okay for now, but we'll take a look at whatever the state does, if they make a move," Meyer said. "A lot of our county land is adjacent to and mixed in with state land, so it just makes sense to have the same rules."

Public lands deer-stand rules

St. Louis County

  • Permanent or built deer stands are allowed on county-managed forest land if they are open.
  • No roofs or walls on deer stands can be left between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1. Any structures with roofs and walls left up during that period will be torn down.
  • Deer stands can't be locked and, if unattended, are open to the public to use.
  • Cutting any standing trees for stands or shooting lanes, even saplings, is illegal and subject to prosecution for so-called timber trespass. Only limited pruning of small side branches is allowed.
  • Planting any seeds or crops on county forest land is illegal and may be subject to penalty.

Carlton County

  • Stands may not be attached to trees in any way on county-managed forest land.

Minnesota DNR-managed lands

  • On State forests, permanent stands are allowed. Nails are discouraged and the DNR is moving toward enforcing a policy banning roofs or walls.
  • In Wildlife Management Areas, state parks and state natural areas open to hunting, stands must be removed each night.
  • The DNR is considering banning permanent stands on forest land, possibly by 2017.

Wisconsin state lands

  •  All stands must be removed each night during the season on DNR-managed lands.

Wisconsin county lands

  • Varies with each county. In some, such as Burnett, stands must be removed each night. In others - such as Douglas and Bayfield - stands are allowed overnight but must be removed by Dec. 31.

National Forests

  • Permanent stands are not allowed. Portable stands may be left up for the season and must be removed at the end of the season.