It can be hard to even give away land in the region that boasts of being the "nation's icebox."

Koochiching County, adjacent to Canada's southern boundary, is giving up to 40 acres of land free to qualified people who are willing to build a house and live on the property for at least 10 years. The idea behind the give-away program was to reverse the county's shrinking population.So far, about 180 potential pioneers have inquired about Koochiching County's free land offer but only three couples have qualified - one couple that already lives in the county, a young man who wants to return home to farm next door to his father and a retired couple. They are expected to get their deeds in the next week.

"We want people that are self-sufficient," said Bob Schwiderski, who runs the homestead program. "We're not looking for an opportunity to increase our welfare rolls up here."

Schwiderski said the program has started slowly but he hopes it will take off as the bugs are worked out and more people become aware of it. He said he hopes for about 15 homesteaders in 1989 and would be happy if the program comes up with 250 over the next five or six years.

"Our real problem up here is that nobody's here any more," said Lee Hervey, one of the residents who concocted the homesteading idea. "The population's dropping and that hurts the schools, the power company, everything. If we don't get neighbors, we won't be able to live here, either."

The county has a total of 2 million acres but a population of just 15,700 people, a drop of about 2,000 since 1980. The county has 50,000 acres in tax-forfeited lands and 1.3 million acres of publicly owned land.