State finalizes agreement to protect 187,000 acres of forest

St. Paul – More than 187,000 acres of industrial forest land in
north-central Minnesota will be protected under an agreement signed
last week by the DNR and Blandin Paper Company.

The tract, which will be open for public hunting, fishing, and
other recreational uses, includes hundreds of miles of stream and
lakeshore and thousands of acres of wetlands.

It will be protected by a perpetual conservation easement that
will cost the state $45 million – $36 million from funds raised by
the constitutional amendment voters approved last fall and $9
million in private funds from The Conservation Fund.

“We now have a binding agreement for the perpetual protection of
some of the state’s largest public access recreational lands,”
DNR_Commissioner Mark Holsten said. “The size and scope of the
Upper Mississippi Forest makes it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
and an ideal use of legacy funding.”

The deal is slated for closing in the middle or late part of
next year.

Under terms of the easement, the land will be open in perpetuity
to the public, no matter who owns the land; existing trails will be
preserved; and it cannot be developed, divided, or subdivided.

“The possibility of these lands being sold without easement
protection was real,” said Tom Duffus, Upper Midwest director of
The Conservation Fund. “We now have in place an irrevocable promise
that no matter who owns these lands, they will remain protected and
open for public use.”

The project was the largest for which the newly named
Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recommended funding.

It’s likely the largest easement and transaction in the state’s
history that’s focused specifically on conservation, according to
Tom Landwehr, assistant state director of The Nature
Conservancy.

“In terms of the state going out and doing a deal, this is, in
my belief, the biggest deal ever,” said Landwehr, who noted the
deal becomes final only when money changes hands next year. And
it’s hard to imagine there ever will be another one bigger: “There
simply aren’t a lot of landowners that own 187,000 acres.”

Moving forward

Landwehr hopes the Upper Mississippi Forest project demonstrates
the on-the-ground difference that dedicated funding can make. But
while the amendment’s passage made possible projects of such scale,
there likely will be few opportunities to preserve such huge tracts
of land.

Some companies still own large forest tracts – in the 50,000- to
100,000 acre range – that could be targeted. And it’s likely the
Lessard-Sams council will be asked again to recommend funding for
large-scale forest projects.

That’s in part because the goal of the Minnesota Forests for the
Future Program is to protect up to 530,000 acres of forest over the
next 25 years.

In addition to previous forest protection efforts, “with the
Upper Mississippi Forest transaction, we will be approaching the
halfway mark of that number,” Landwehr said.

While there was some sentiment that funding from the Outdoor
Heritage Fund was too heavily tilted toward forest projects in the
first phase of funding – primarily because of the Upper Mississippi
project – it’s likely more funds in coming years will go to the
prairies and to water, for example, as opportunities for large
forest transactions dwindle, he said.

While it’s possible to have prairie projects that include
thousands of acres, they likely won’t be on the scale of some of
the larger forest projects.

A recent large prairie project in the state – establishment of
the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge – included about 24,000
acres of prairie.

“I’m not aware of another land holding that size in the state,”
Landwehr said.

However, prairie-funding proponents could propose a project that
includes thousands of acres and several landowners.

“People realize a scattergun approach isn’t the right way to go
for most types of conservation that people want to get done,”
Landwehr said. “Frankly, (I believe) people would rather see big
projects. The bigger the project, the more value can come out of
it.”

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