LOHC reviews huge forest proposal

St. Paul – A proposal unveiled Monday to the Lessard Outdoor
Heritage Council would protect in perpetuity more than 187,000
acres of forests and wetlands in northern Minnesota.

The catch: It would consume more than half of the money that
will be available to be spent this year from the Outdoor Heritage
Fund.

At nearly $43 million, the request was the largest the council
received during its initial funding cycle. Monday’s meeting marked
the final one at which the council heard proposals; it will spend
the next month sifting through them and determining which ones it
will recommend the Legislature agree to fund.

All told, the council received wetland, prairie, forest, and
fish and wildlife habitat proposals totaling nearly three times the
$78 million that’s expected to be available for spending this year
from the habitat portion of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy
Amendment voters approved last fall.

The council has until April 1 to make its recommendations to the
Legislature.

Largest proposal yet

Whether the $42.7 million proposal makes the cut remains to be
seen, but supporters say a project of its kind is what voters had
in mind last fall when they approved hiking the state sales tax by
3/8 of 1 percent. It would be the largest conservation project ever
completed in the state, according to Tom Landwehr, assistant state
director of The Nature Conservancy.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “It’s a chance
to protect just a huge piece of northern hardwood forest from
development.”

It’s estimated the total cost will exceed $50 million, with the
Blandin Foundation and another foundation kicking in about $9
million. The proposal is from the DNR, and is supported by a number
of other conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy and
Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

For its money, the state would get permanent conservation
easements on 187,277 acres, or nearly 300 square miles, mostly in
Itasca County. The landowner, Finland-based UPM-Kymmene, would
retain its ownership of the land and continue to manage it, but
would agree not to develop or divide the property, said Dick
Peterson, coordinator of the DNR’s Forests for the Future
Program.

Because it would remain in private ownership, the land would
remain on the tax rolls.

All of the land, which includes more than 60,000 acres of
wetlands and 280 miles of stream and lakeshore, would remain open
to hunting, fishing, and other recreational opportunities. The
estimated cost per acre is $261.

“This is a landscape-scale protection project,” Peterson told
the council.

The risk of doing nothing, he said, is the company could sell
the land to investors or sell hunting leases, which “would exclude
the general public from the property.”

While Peterson said the deal, if funds were available, likely
could close this calendar year, council members asked if it would
be possible to complete the transaction over two to three years, or
if select parcels could be purchased.

The DNR hasn’t pursued a multi-year proposal, and the company
has “indicated this is an all-or-nothing transaction,” and isn’t
interested in doing only a part of it, Peterson said.

As it considers the proposal, the council will have to balance
the desire for amendment dollars to have benefits throughout the
state with the opportunity to fund “a poster child” for what can be
done with the money, Landwehr said. It may come down to helping the
council come up with a creative way to finance the project.

“We’re going to have to help the council figure out how to
swallow the elephant,” he said. “We have to look at some creative
options.”

Many other forest projects

Among the other forest conservation projects, which totalled
more than $64 million and 200,000 acres, pitched to the council on
Monday:

€ $5 million to the Cass County Land Department to purchase
about 3,100 acres of industrial forest in Cass and Koochiching
counties. All of the land would be open to public access, said Norm
Moody, Cass County land commissioner.

“They’re very productive both for wildlife and timber,” he
said.

€ $6 million to Trust for Public Land to acquire 318 acres of
forestland: 38 acres on the shoreline of Leech Lake; 200 acres of
lakeshore in Kandiyohi County as a scientific and natural area; and
80 acres near the St. Croix River as an SNA.

€ $3.82 million to the National Wild Turkey Federation to
acquire conservation easements on 1,000 acres and restore about
1,000 acres in Big Stone, Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, and Swift
counties. The idea is to restore and connect blocks of riparian
corridors in the Upper Mississippi Watershed, according to
NWTF.

Fish and wildlife habitat

The fish and wildlife habitat proposals the council received
totalled more than $43 million. Some of the proposals included:

€ $12.9 million to the DNR for aquatic management area
acquisition. The money would be used to purchase fee title or
permanent easements on about 2,780 acres – nearly 20 miles – of
lake and warmwater stream shoreline, and about 120 acres of
permanent habitat management easements on designated trout
streams.

€ $8.2 million for Metro Conservation Corridors. The program
focuses on the Twin Cities metro area. “Specifically, MeCC partners
will work collaboratively to protect through fee and conservation
easement acquisition 1,791 acres, restore 675 acres, and enhance
565 acres of significant habitat, guided by ecological and other
selected criteria,” according to the project summary.

€ $2.2 million to the Minnesota Council of Trout Unlimited to
restore and enhance fish habitat in a number of creeks and rivers,
including accelerated restoration of about 5 miles of in-stream
habitat in four southeast streams.

“Our habitat restoration and improvement projects enhance stream
quality, cure streambank erosion and increase stream productivity
including trout populations,” according MNTU.

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