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Mega Legacy

Songbirds, hunters, lynx, loggers, ruffed grouse, berry pickers -- all those dependent on forest land -- stand to benefit from one of the biggest conservation deals in Minnesota in the past decade. A landmark agreement signed this past October protects 51,163 acres of privately owned northern Minnesota timberland from development in perpetuity.

The deal was signed by the state of Minnesota and Forest Capital Partners, a Boston-based investment firm that purchased the land from Boise Cascade LLC in 2005. It was facilitated by Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, a public-private enterprise established to protect undeveloped forests from fragmentation. Forest Capital Partners received $12 million in state and private funds in exchange for a working-forest conservation easement that relinquishes development rights yet keeps the land -- almost 80 square miles in Itasca and Koochiching counties -- open to timber production and outdoor recreation.

"The land has been traditionally open to the public for hunting. The easement secures that public access permanently," said Richard Peterson, DNR forest legacy coordinator.

Under the deal, Forest Capital Partners may continue to sell timber contracts for logging on the land as long as it meets the state's voluntary guidelines for sustainable timber harvesting and follows a DNR-approved forest management plan. Forest Capital Partners also will continue to pay taxes on the property. The public gains permanent access for recreation, including hunting, fishing, hiking, and skiing, as well as snowmobiling and all-terrain vehicle riding along designated trails.

"We're interested in both open access to the public as well as keeping the land a working forest," says Beverly Rinke, land sales manager for Forest Capital Partners.

The agreement is a sign of changing times in the world of forest ownership. Timber companies have long owned huge tracts of forest land across the United States. In recent years, however, investment groups have been buying timberland, closing off public access, and selling the land for development such as cabins and homes. Development divides deep contiguous forest into fragments that not only limit public access and timber production but also make life tough for forest wildlife. (See "Breaking Up the Forest," Jan.-Feb. 2006).

The newly protected lands are near or interspersed with nearly 440,000 acres of state land, including Koochiching and George Washington state forests. As a result, the easement, known as the Koochiching-Washington Forest Legacy Project, protects the integrity of a truly vast forest.

"It makes for a very large area of solid ownership of state and Forest Capital Partners lands," Rinke says. "There's virtually no private land amongst it."

The Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership gathered the funds to purchase the easement, including $6.6 million appropriated by the Minnesota Legislature and the balance from The Nature Conservancy, the Blandin Foundation, the Conservation Fund, the Surdna Foundation, and other donors. The DNR holds and oversees the conservation easement. The DNR is currently developing a long-term plan for acquiring additional conservation easements. Meanwhile, Peterson is working with partners on easements in Lake, St. Louis, and Wabasha counties. Discussions have begun with Forest Capital Partners that could bring more Koochiching County acres under the conservation easement umbrella.

Mary Hoff, freelance writer

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