Upper Mississippi forest lands protected forever

Conservation easement protects waters, habitat and public access regardless of potential land sale

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Blandin Paper Company (UPM) have signed a binding agreement for the purchase of a working forest conservation easement to forever protect 187,277 acres of Northwoods forests, wetlands and shoreline currently owned by UPM. The agreement includes a closing date in 2010 when Lessard Outdoor Heritage funds will be fully available for the project.

The agreement will provide public access and numerous land and water safeguards, regardless of who may own the forest lands in the future, including:

* Permanent public access to 187,277 acres of land in north-central Minnesota for hunting, fishing, birdwatching and other recreational activities.

* Preservation of existing hiking, snowmobile and ATV trails.

Safeguards include:

* No development permitted on any of the lands.

* No dividing or subdividing of the lands for sale or other uses.

* No altering of water channels, wetlands, streams or rivers.

* No new or expanded roads or landings except as needed for sustainable forest management practices.

A requirement to follow internationally accepted sustainable forest management practices by being certified through the Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative, with auditing by the DNR for compliance.

The agreement was signed today, 12 days after Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment funding allocations, which included a two-year state appropriation of $36 million for purchase of working forest conservation easements. The state funding will come from revenues generated by the additional sales tax authorized by the constitutional amendment.

In addition, private funding of $9 million is being provided to the state by The Conservation Fund. The sources of these funds include $7 million from the Blandin Foundation and $2 million from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, bringing the total easement investment to $45 million.

“We now have a binding agreement for the perpetual protection of some of the state’s largest public access recreational lands,” said DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten. “The size and scope of the Upper Mississippi Forest makes it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and an ideal use of legacy funding. The easement is a smart investment that will protect Minnesota’s Great Outdoors for our children and grandchildren.”

Mike Kilgore, chair of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, views the Upper Mississippi Forest as the signature project of the Outdoor Heritage Fund. “The Council embraced this project because it embodies everything that the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment stands for. The easement permanently protects important natural resources – forests, wetlands and shoreline – while guaranteeing public access for recreation at an unprecedented scale. Simply stated, this easement is a great buy for the citizens of Minnesota.”

The conservation easement will remain in place regardless of any possible sale of the forest lands. The timing of the easement agreement is critical for the protection of the lands, according to Tom Duffus, Upper Midwest Director of The Conservation Fund, who helped negotiate the easement. “The possibility of these lands being sold without easement protection was real. We now have in place an irrevocable promise that no matter who owns these lands, they will remain protected and open for public use.”

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said, “UPM has been a good steward of the land. And now, thanks to the wise investment by the state of Minnesota, regardless of ownership, we have an everlasting guarantee that they will be available for future generations, free from subdivision or development.”

“This easement is critical for the current and long-term needs of this community,” said Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “Not only will we benefit from a guaranteed source of timber that will provide jobs for loggers and mill workers, we will also remain a recreational destination for those who wish to hunt, fish, hike and recreate on these lands.”

Patrick Radzak, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local Union No. 346, echoed the sentiments expressed by Stone. “It is always positive when an employer and the union can work together to protect our lands and good jobs for the state of Minnesota.”

Clean Water, Land and Legacy funding for the easements will come from a 3/8 percent increase in the state sales tax, approved by Minnesota voters last November. The sales tax increase, which goes into effect on July 1, will also fund other land conservation measures, clean water initiatives, parks and trails projects, and arts education and cultural heritage. It is expected to take until mid to late 2010 before sufficient funds are collected to complete the conservation easement purchase. The easement purchase should be finalized before Dec. 31, 2010.

news.dnr.state.mn.us/index.php/2009/06/03/upper-mississippi-forest-lands-protected-forever/

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