Access to MN Working Forest Land Protected

May 16, 2007. GRAND RAPIDS, Minn.—Access to more than 1,600 acres of forest lands has been protected. The Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, a public-private coalition formed to help keep the state’s working lands working and accessible, announced today that it has completed its first project by conserving more than 1,600 acres in Itasca County.

Federal, state and private money totaling $1.7 million has been used to purchase a working forest conservation easement that restricts development of the property. The agreement will protect jobs, conserve wildlife habitat and guarantee public access for outdoor recreation.”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 Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR), which provided about half of the funding for what is being called the “Sugar Hills” project.

Under the recently-completed agreement, Liila Forest Products, a division of Rajala Companies, a fourth generation family-owned company based in Deer River, Minn., will continue to own a 1,660-acre tract in southern Itasca County known as Sugar Hills. “We have a long history of providing good jobs and managing our lands so that the forest remains healthy and open to the public,” said John Rajala, president of Liila Forest Products Company. “This deal helps ensure that the Sugar Hills land will remain a working forest that is also open for public recreation with protected conservation values. This is truly a victory for all who love this forest and its multiple benefits.”

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.

Thanking all partners, DNR Forestry Director Dave Epperly said, “Programs like Forest Legacy are critically important at a time when Minnesota’s forests face many threats to the commodities and values they provide, as well as the quality of life they provide for Minnesotans.”

The Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership was created almost two years ago by The Nature Conservancy and the Blandin Foundation. The partnership includes The Trust for Public Land, which facilitated the Sugar Hills transaction and helped secure the necessary public funding for the deal, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which will hold and monitor the conservation easement. Additional partnership members are: the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, The Conservation Fund, Minnesota Forest Industries and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

The Sugar Hills conservation project was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service for federal Forest Legacy Program funding and, with strong support of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, received $750,000 this year. Matching funds were provided by the Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy. The Department of Natural Resources contributed $728,000, including $478,000 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 offering the easement at a discounted price.

Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased Sugar Hills would be conserved. “This is a great deal for our community and for visitors,” Stone said. “Anyone who’s been up to Big Thunder Peak knows that it affords an absolute spectacular view. Keeping this land as a sustainable, working forest that remains open to the public is an enormous accomplishment.”

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Minnesota has made great strides in recent years to protect jobs and forests through public-private partnerships. “Minnesota’s forests are an important part of our nation-leading quality of life. Our forests are enjoyed by hunters, anglers, hikers, birdwatchers, cross-country skiers and many more. Protecting our forests is a key element of our conservation efforts and I applaud the partners who made this deal a reality.”

The Minnesota congressional delegation has also supported efforts to ensure Minnesota’s forest resources are protected by securing federal Forest Legacy Program funds for several projects in the state.

“Forests can be saved without sacrificing timber-related jobs or sources of revenue for local government,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-MN. “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-MN. “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.”

“The Sugar Hills Forest Legacy project exemplifies the coexistence of good forestry practices and recreational activities,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Chisholm. “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.”

State Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said the Sugar Hills deal is a model for protecting Minnesota’s northwoods. “Conservation easements are essential for forest management and consolidation. We need them to make sure the land stays accessible for future generations.”Jim Hoolihan, president of the Blandin Foundation, said that changes in forest products industry are causing much of Minnesota’s industrial forestland to be broken up and sold off. As a result, timber-related jobs, wildlife habitat and public access are threatened.

“There are a million acres of industrial forest in danger of being developed and if we don’t protect them now we have no assurance they will continue to benefit us in the future,” Hoolihan said.

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 and longtime tradition of public access for hunting, fishing and hiking and other forms of outdoor recreation. Itasca County has the highest concentration of privately held industrial forestland in the state.

The Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership’s goal is to raise $26 million of private and public funding to purchase conservation easements on up to 75,000 acres of strategically selected parcels of private forestland in or near Itasca County from willing sellers.

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. Visit TPL on the web at

The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working to protect the most ecologically important lands and waters around the world for nature and people. To date, the Conservancy and its more than one million members have been responsible for the protection of more than 15 million acres in the United States and have helped preserve more than 102 million acres in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

Blandin Foundation, Minnesota’s largest rural-based private foundation is located in Grand Rapids, Minn. Its mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities, especially the Grand Rapids area, through grants, leadership development programs and public policy initiatives.