The 50,000 acres that will be protected are located in and around the George Washington and Koochiching state forests in north-central Minnesota. Susan Schmidt, Minnesota director of the Trust for Public Land, says the lakes and rivers in the area make it a desirable spot for residential and commercial development.
"With the water features in these lands, it's just prime for second-home and third-party development," she said.
Under the deal facilitated by Schmidt's organization, that development won't happen. $15 million in state and private money will go to purchase a permanent conservation easement. The state's portion is $5 million. The company that owns the land -- Boston-based Forest Capital Partners -- can still harvest the forests for timber, but the company can't subdivide and sell the land, and must preserve it for wildlife habitat, hunting, fishing and other recreation.
The company's regional manager, Craig Halla , says Forest Capital Partners looks forward to working with the state and the Trust for Public Land to finalize the agreement.
"There's no better way or legacy for our company, or for me personally as a professional forester, rather than to have these lands put aside for public access and to remain a working forest. That's a pretty big deal," he said.
Halla says the land is lush with aspen, red pine, white birch and other trees, and is a good spot for deer and grouse hunting. It is intermingled with public land, meaning a combined* stretch of up to 150,000 acres will be protected.
State DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam says it's not cost-effective for the state to buy all of the private land, so the permanent easement is a better way to set it aside for public use.
Merriam says if forest land isn't preserved, it often is parceled off for private development. Gov. Pawlenty says in the past, forest products companies and paper mills allowed the public to use their land for hunting, hiking and snowmobiling.
"Now, because of market changes globally in the forest industry and the paper products industry, those tracts of land are being sold off to other smaller private interests, which is then opening up encroachment or development in these tracts of land in a way that's quite concerning for those of use who want to preserve these lands for a variety of purposes," the governor said.
Pawlenty says he hopes the deal with Forest Capital Partners is the first of other similar agreements to set aside forestland. The state's $5 million contribution will come from a $7 million Forest Legacy Initiative in the bonding bill the governor recently signed into law. The state's portion will be matched two-to-one by private dollars, starting with a $6 million contribution from the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation.
Their effort to raise the remaining money is still underway.