1,660 Acres at Sugar Hills Protected as Working Forest (MN)

Grand Rapids, MN, 8/9/2007: U.S. Congressman Jim Oberstar and USDA Under Secretary Mark Rey joined The Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, representatives for U.S. Senator Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, and local and state officials today at the new Sugar Hills Forest Legacy Area in Itasca County. The event marked the protection of 1,660 acres of forestland, the latest success in an ongoing effort to stem the forest fragmentation facing Minnesota.

This was the first project completed by the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, a public-private coalition formed to keep the state’s Northwoods intact. The coalition includes the Blandin Foundation, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, The Nature Conservancy, the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, The Conservation Fund, and The Trust for Public Land.

“The Sugar Hills Forest Legacy project exemplifies the coexistence of good forestry practices and recreational activities,” U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Chisholm, said at the event. “A healthy forest can provide both sustenance for the timber industry and opportunities for residents and visitors to enjoy the outdoors. As a result of this project, Sugar Hills will continue to be managed and treasured for years to come. I congratulate the project partners and the Rajala family for this outstanding success and their understanding that a healthy forest is a vibrant resource for many entities.”

“Forests can be saved without sacrificing timber-related jobs or sources of revenue for local government,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. “We can use conservation easements to protect our natural areas and keep the land in private ownership and on the tax rolls. This is an example of how partnerships among private landowners such as the Rajala family, governments at all levels and non-governmental organizations can come together to preserve the great Northwoods of Minnesota for our children and grandchildren.”

“Minnesota’s forests also provide benefits even to those who don’t experience them firsthand, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “Our forests clean our air and water and provide essential habitat for wildlife. I am pleased with the success of this project and look forward to more successes to protect the critical forest resources of our Northwoods.”

“I’m pleased to celebrate this project with all of the partners. It exemplifies USDA’s commitment to partner with public and private entities. The Sugar Hills project demonstrates the use of practical, innovative solutions to manage our natural resources,” said Under Secretary Rey. “Through this cooperative conservation effort, critical forest lands have been conserved.”

The subdivision and development of large blocks of industrial forestland is the principal threat to Minnesota’s timber-related jobs, abundant and diverse populations of wildlife, as well at its long-time tradition of public access for hunting, fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation. Itasca County has the highest concentration of privately held industrial forestland in the state.

An application was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service for federal Forest Legacy Program funding to purchase a working forest conservation easement on the Sugar Hills property. With the strong support of the agency and Minnesota’s congressional delegation, the project received $825,000 this year. Matching funds were provided by the Minnesota DNR and The Nature Conservancy. The DNR contributed $653,000, including $403,000 that was recommended by the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Conservancy contributed $250,000 via a grant from the Blandin Foundation. Liila Forest Products also contributed financially to the project by providing the easement at a discounted price.

“The Trust for Public Land is pleased to have been a facilitator of this collaborative effort,” says TPL Minnesota Director Susan Schmidt. “Through the Forest Legacy Program, critical forestland is now conserved for habitat and for recreational use, safeguarding the Northwoods way of life for the future. TPL is excited to be part of the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership and commends the U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota congressional delegation for their leadership in providing critical federal funding for this effort.”

“We will continue to be proactive and visionary like this in order to protect access to great habitat for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation, and to keep working forests working,” said Mark Holsten, Commissioner of the Minnesota DNR, which provided about half of the funding for what is being called the “Sugar Hills” project.

Rajala Companies of Deer River and Bigfork, MN, through its Liila Forest Products division, will continue to own this 1,660 acre tract known as Sugar Hills, which is now restricted from development through the working forest easement. John Rajala, President of Liila Forest Products, explains, “Our family has always been committed to managing its timberlands for the multiple benefits that come from a working forest, including recreation and conservation benefits that accrue without cost to the public. However, we came under great pressure to monetize the non-timber values of this property, which put it at risk of fragmentation and development.

“With the working forest conservation easement, Sugar Hills will be a perpetual and sustainable source of the finest hardwood products that can be found in northern Minnesota, and will support our sawmill, millwork, and veneer manufacturing investments. We take great satisfaction in the knowledge that our forestry efforts will continue to maintain forest health and economic value in harmony with the public values of recreation and conservation.”

Sugar Hills includes a 26-acre lake, 77 acres of wetlands and Big Thunder Peak, one of the highest named summits in the state. The property also includes stretches of two clearwater creeks and some of the best cross-country ski trails in the state. Its mixed hardwoods are home to abundant and diverse populations of wildlife including black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, fisher, marten, red-shouldered hawk, ruffed grouse and neotropical migratory songbirds.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program, authorized by Congress in 1990 to keep intact natural and recreational resources of the nation’s dwindling forests, provides federal money to states to protect threatened working forests and woodlands through conservation easements and fee acquisition. With its minimum requirement of 25 percent non federal matching funds, the program leverages state and private dollars to complement federal money, creating partnerships that have lasting value.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national, nonprofit land-conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Established in 1972, TPL is the only national nonprofit working exclusively to protect land for public enjoyment and use. In Minnesota, TPL has protected more than 27,500 acres valued at more than $50 million including the recent protection of Long Island near Ely, an addition to the future Neenah Creek Regional Park in St. Cloud and the creation of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in downtown St. Paul. TPL depends on contributions from supporters to continue protecting land throughout the state.