Agreement Protects Access to 51K Northwoods Acres (MN)

ST. PAUL, MN, 10/2/2007: Governor Pawlenty announced on October 2, 2007 that more than 51,000 acres of forest – almost 80 square miles – in Itasca and Koochiching counties have been conserved. State and private money totaling $12 million has been used to purchase a working forest conservation easement that precludes subdivision and development of the property. This is the single largest conservation project in Minnesota in at least a decade. The agreement will protect jobs, preserve wildlife habitat and guarantee public access for outdoor recreation.

“A key aspect of this landmark agreement is that the land will continue to be managed for timber production and continue to provide jobs and revenue for local economies as private land,” Governor Tim Pawlenty said. “It will be open to the public for a wide variety of uses, including hunting, hiking and fishing. Minnesotans have always taken great pride in our vast forests and this achievement is a testament to our long-term commitment to responsible stewardship of our heritage and future.”

Public funding for the easement purchase comes from $6.6 million in bond funds appropriated by the Minnesota Legislature in 2006. Private foundations and conservation groups contributed $5.4 million.

The newly-conserved lands are located near almost 440,000 acres of state-owned lands – Koochiching State Forest, George Washington State Forest, Myrtle Lake Peatland State Natural Area and Scenic State Park. Because of its proximity to the two state forests, the project is being called the Koochiching-Washington Forest Legacy Project.

“Forests are key to our way of life in northern Minnesota,” said State Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids. “This project demonstrates how we can protect our private industrial forest lands while preservingpublic access.”

State Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township in Itasca County agreed: “This agreement is exceptional because it conserves an important area and it does so in a way that really works for the people Snowmobiles and ATVs are part of our culture and we need to provide designated trails for the people to use.”

This is the second and largest project to be completed by the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, a public-private coalition created two years ago by The Nature Conservancy and the Blandin Foundation to help conserve Minnesota’s Northwoods. The partnership’s first project, known as Sugar Hills, was completed in May 2007 and ensured that 1,600 acres in Itasca County would remain a publicly-accessible working forest.

The partnership includes the Trust for Public Land, which facilitated the transaction in the latest Forest Legacy project between the landowner (Forest Capital Partners) and the state, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 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 and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA). Forest Capital Partners is a private forest landowner that acquires and manages working forests across North America for long-term sustainability, including more than 290,000 acres in northern Minnesota. The company actively manages its forests under the sustainable forest management guidelines set forth by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative?.

“This project is a great example of how private landowners, conservation organizations, public agencies and other entities can partner together to promote conservation,” noted Brian J. Kernohan, Manager of Wildlife & Forest Stewardship for Forest Capital Partners. “We are proud to provide a portion of our working forests to assist in these invaluable conservation efforts.”

Under the recently-completed voluntary agreement, Forest Capital Partners retains ownership as well as the right to continue to manage their land for timber production.

To purchase the conservation easement on 11,824 acres in Itasca County and 39,339 acres in Koochiching County, the DNR contributed $6.6 million through public bond funds appropriated by the Minnesota Legislature in 2006.

The Nature Conservancy also contributed $5.4 million via gifts from: the Blandin Foundation, $4.0 million; The Conservation Fund, $500,000; and a variety of other sources including the Surdna Foundation.

The source of the Conservation Fund’s contribution is the Upper Midwest Wildlife Initiative, funded in part by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

The conservation easement allows for sustainable logging under a state forest management plan but precludes development. The easement also ensures that the lands can be used by the public for outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing, hiking and cross-country skiing. Snowmobiles and ATV use will continue as is subject to future trail designation on the property.

“This is a great opportunity for the state to make certain that Minnesotans can continue to enjoy these lands,” said DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten. “We’re committed to conserving our best forests for public access, outdoor recreation, and our forest economy.”

The newly-conserved lands are large enough to provide for an estimated 1,100 deer hunters a year. “This is an incredible area for wildlife and for hunters and it’s great to see that it will stay that way,” said Mark Johnson, president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “MDHA is very proud to be a part of this huge accomplishment.”

The project area also includes prime lands for hunting ruffed grouse.

Abundant and diverse populations of wildlife including Canada lynx, gray wolf, American black duck, American woodcock as well as neotropical migratory birds and other songbird species can be found in the area.

The project is expected to benefit as many as 81 of the 292 species classified by DNR as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Minnesota’s State Wildlife Action Plan, “Tomorrow’s Habitat for the Wild and Rare: An Action Plan for Minnesota Wildlife.” Species of Greatest Conservation Need are broadly defined as species that are declining, rare or vulnerable in Minnesota.

“Minnesota has an excellent State Wildlife Action Plan,” said Tom Duffus, Upper Midwest director at The Conservation Fund. “This is the kind of project that can make that plan a reality. To succeed, the state needs to conserve large blocks of wildlife habitat that are home to many of its most remarkable and at-risk wildlife species. Conservation provides a number of environmental and economic benefits including clean water and air and open space for all of us to enjoy.”

The newly-conserved lands include coniferous forest and peatland along with 13 lakes and more than 90 ponds totaling 46.9 miles of shoreline. The properties also encompass 43.5 miles of rivers and streams as well as 18,971 acres of wetlands.

Mark Mandich, Itasca County’s District 5 Commissioner, said he was pleased that the project would allow for the continued use of existing forest roads for motorized recreation. “This is an important step to halt the breaking up of existing trail systems, and is critical for linking future trails.”

Wade Pavleck, the District 1 Commissioner in Koochiching County, said that the project will help local communities maintain their way of life. “Jobs and public access for hunting and recreation- that’s what everyone wanted for this land, and what we would have lost if it had not been conserved,” he said.

Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased the land will remain a working forest. “It provides a huge economic opportunity in that it includes timber management plans that will provide jobs and raw materials on a sustainable basis that will fuel the state’s economy,” he said.

Jim Hoolihan, president of the Blandin Foundation, said that more must be done to ensure that lands owned by timber companies in northern Minnesota continue to be managed so that they provide jobs, wildlife habitat and public access for outdoor recreation.

“Traditionally, these lands have played an important role in our way of life,” Hoolihan said. “But due to rising real estate prices and changes in the forest products industry, we’ve lost industrial forestland to development. This project will ensure that this property remains a publicly-accessible working forest.”

Peggy Ladner, director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, said that the project’s sheer size and its proximity to two state forests, a state natural area and a state park, which added together total 439,652 acres, made it a priority for conservation.

“Saving 51,163 acres of forest is great work but when those lands combine with existing public natural areas to create a conservation area that approaches 500,000 acres, it’s an absolutely incredible and enduring accomplishment,” Ladner said. “To protect our natural heritage for now and for our future, we need to conserve our lands and waters at a landscape scale.”