State finalizes 188,000-acre northern forest easement

St. Paul – Nearly 188,000 acres of forest in northern Minnesota
will remain open in perpetuity to public access as a result of a
conservation easement signed last week.

UPM Blandin Paper still will own and manage the land, but the
easement, which the state acquired for $44 million, forbids the
company from developing or subdividing it.

The majority of the money to buy the easement – $34.25 million –
came from tax dollars generated by the Legacy Amendment. The
Conservation Fund provided the remainder through private

The easement covers nearly 300 square miles and is the largest
conservation project in the state in recent history.

“A number of us have been working on this for about 10 years,”
said Tom Duffus, Upper Midwest director for The Conservation Fund.
“Once the Legacy Amendment passed, it helped push everything over
the finish line.”

The property, which covers parts of seven counties, includes
60,000 acres of wetlands, more than 130 miles of shoreline, 100
miles of streams, and 30 miles of designated trout streams.

The easement is a marquis project completed with funds from the
amendment, according to Mike Kilgore, chair of the Lessard-Sams
Outdoor Heritage Council, which recommended the Legislature fund
the project.

“It’s a key accomplishment,” he said. “Anytime you can preserve
forever a large tract of land from being developed or subdivided,
it’s a great deal.”

The land includes working forests in Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass,
Clearwater, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis counties. UPM
Blandin will follow sustainable forest management practices, and
the DNR will conduct audits for compliance, according to an agency
news release.

There is some sentiment that the project simply keeps things
as-is, but that’s the point, Duffus said.

“You ought to take a trip to north-central Maine or central New
Hampshire and see what’s happened to paper company lands that
haven’t been protected,” he said.

Oftentimes, those lands are leased or developed, and access and
habitat is lost, Duffus said.

A long time in the works

There’s been interest in the project, known as the Upper
Mississippi Forest project, since it became evident that forest
trends in the eastern United States were making their way to states
like Minnesota.

In order to take on easements of a large magnitude, the state
needed to build the capacity to do so, which it did through the
creation of the DNR’s Minnesota Forests for the Future program,
Duffus said.

In addition, it took time to cultivate the relationships that
were important in securing the nearly $10 million in private funds,
he said.

“Building private funding capacity in the state was important
because in a project like this, public money – in my mind –
shouldn’t be the only dollars in there,” Duffus said.

After voters approved the Legacy Amendment in November of 2008,
DNR officials began discussions with UPM Blandin. Duffus
facilitated those discussions, according to the DNR.

In early 2009, the DNR proposed the project to the L-SOHC, which
signed off and recommended the Legislature fund it. The Legislature
did, and terms of the deal were agreed upon in June of 2009.

The deal closed on July 8.

“It’s critically important (to acquire the easement),” said
Craig Engwall, DNR regional director in Grand Rapids. “Blandin,
like all other large forest land owners, is under tremendous
pressure to generate revenues. Some of the options out there to
generate revenues aren’t beneficial to natural resources or public
access for recreation.”

Future possibilities

Engwall says there are additional opportunities in the state for
large-scale easement acquisitions.

“I see the potential for more than a quarter of a million acres
that could ultimately be enrolled if the funding is there,” he
said. “But the need can be very short-term because tens of
thousands of acres of this type of forest land has already been
sold or leased, which causes parcellization.”

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