Projected demographic changes for Northeastern Minnesota are alarming, showing a need for economic diversity and population growth - not the hoarding of forestland. Land already taken in Northeastern Minnesota is disproportionately vast compared to the whole state.

After 40 years of state payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT, the program needs changing. Created in 1979 to subsidize lost tax revenue for so-called "unwanted" land, PILT has exceeded its mandate to become land-use regulation, encompassing wanted forestland. Using parcel consolidation and classification schemes, Minnesota's PILT program effectively restricts the sales of small forestland parcels (five to 10 acres) to prospective residents in favor of large-parcel buyers for development, timber harvesting, or future unlegislated taking.

A Feb. 26 commentary in the News Tribune, headlined, "Tax-forfeited forest lands a win-win-win for counties," described PILT payments being less than tax revenue from private ownership. But a recent land debate shows the opposite.

The commentary said PILT lands require "few public services." This is consistent with the view that people and parcel sizes are threats to forests, ignoring the population needed to maintain those services.

The commentary also said, "Rural population growth does not necessarily equate to prosperity." This was outdated, as industry and prosperity are redefined.

Unrelated to the stewardship provided by conservationists, PILT law interpretation allows people to be priced out of the market while forestlands are cherry-picked for timber harvesting, potentially affecting wildlife habitat.

What's worse, clear-cutting or population growth? Forests aren't the same after clear cutting, and forestry experts say they "underestimated the impact of heavy handed clear cutting," according to the Alicia Patterson Foundation, making it far worse than population growth.

Stewardship by private landowners is vested across Northeastern Minnesota. Population growth in and near forest perimeters doesn't limit wood-fiber supplies or reduce forest restoration (typically implemented deeper for protecting watersheds and species).

PILT laws should favor population growth. How much is enough?

Warner Gouin

Inver Grove Heights, Minn.