conservation easement

Senator Tom Saxhaug shared some poignant reflections on the new Upper Mississippi Forest Project conservation easement at Friday’s Forestry Affairs Committee meeting of the Grand Rapids Area’s Chamber of Commerce. As the bill’s author in the Senate, Tom has intimate knowledge of the behind-the-scenes efforts required to pass the legislation. His leadership was central to the project’s success in the session’s final days and hours.

In recounting the political “sausage making” that got the bill successfully into — and out of — conference committee in a version that met all parties’ needs, the Senator singled out the deft work of Mike Kilgore in his role as chair of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council and Bob Schroeder, from the Governor’s staff. He also took pains to recognize the yeoman efforts of Representative Mary Murphy, who flexed muscles to “herd cats” on the House side to get a “clean” version of the bill put forward. He noted the important role played by Art Norton of the Nature Conservancy, Tom Duffus of The Conservation Fund, Craig Engwall at the DNR, and the Blandin Foundation’s Vital Forests/Vital Communities Initiative. But the Senator saved his greatest praise for (UPM) Blandin Paper Company itself – “it’ll always be the Blandin Mill to me,” he said affectionately.

Tom recounted his memory of how, when UPM-Kymenne’s Finns “came to town” twelve years ago, “they took one look at our forests and pronounced them a mess.” “They told us we can do better, and they have led the way,” he said.

Today, said Saxhaug, many of the environmentally-minded Twin Cities legislators who once thought the forest sector was led by “jack pine savages” have had their minds changed, thanks to Cheryl Adams’ tours of UPM’s forestlands. Now those forests will forever benefit from the state-of-the-art best practices introduced by UPM. UPM’s Jim Marshall added that from the company’s perspective, preserving jobs was also a significant and lasting benefit for the community.

Afterwards, Tom shared that a number of his legislative colleagues had told him they thought it likely that the Upper Mississippi Forest Project would end up being one of the most significant achievements of the Legacy Fund’s entire 25 year run. Then he folded up his papers and hurried off to his next meeting. For Tom, there’s never a shortage of good work to do.


Last Friday Governor Pawlenty gave Minnesotans something extra special to celebrate by signing into law a bill authorizing $36 million to purchase a conservation easement for the Upper Mississippi Forest Project. Together with the $7 million from Blandin Foundation and $2 million from the Mellon Foundation, the project is now fully funded, permanently protecting over 187,000 acres of working forest land from parcelization and ensuring public access forever.

I’ve attached a map of the project area below, and here’s a link to how the story played in the Grand Rapids Herald Review (the UMF coverage starts with “Some Bright Spots”).

Local lawmakers are hailing the bill as a great achievement for Minnesota. Representative Tom Anzelc said the project “preserves and protects a whole culture and way of life for northern Minnesotans,” and Senator Tom Saxhaug notes that it preserves jobs related to timber harvesting.

This enthusiasm is shared by others across the state. Executive Director of Conservation Minnesota, Paul Austin, who lobbied hard for the amendment, was quoted in Minnpost last Wednesday as calling the project a “great marquee item to have happen right out of the box and hopefully it will be followed by 24 years of similar projects,” and legislative watchers have quoted LOHC members as referring to it as their “signature project.”

A great beginning for a new era of conservation for our state!


For those of you who may have missed it, here is a link to MPR’s story this morning reporting the Legislature’s overwhelming support of a bill that fully funds the Upper Mississippi Forest Project:

House, Senate approve outdoors and arts program by Tim Nelson

The $36 million of dedicated sales tax dollars will be matched by $9 million in private funds, including $7 million from the Blandin Foundation. If Governor Pawlenty signs this bill into law, it will be the largest deal of its kind in the state’s history, putting into permanent conservation easement over 188,000 acres of working forest lands, protecting public benefits –like recreational access, habitat and water quality – forever.

Getting the project this far is the result of a major collaborative effort involving many organizations and individuals – including some key partners in the Foundation’s Vital Forests/Vital Communities Initiatives. In particular, I would like to recognize the leadership and hard work of legislators Tom Saxhaug and Loren Solberg, Tom Duffus of The Conservation Fund, and the DNR’s Craig Engwall.

From the Foundation’s perspective, conserving the area’s forest resources is one of our most significant investments in the last five years. Let’s hope we can soon celebrate this historic achievement.

photo by John Connelly

photo by John Connelly

Today I am delighted to share with VFVC Blog readers the news that Blandin Foundation Trustees have approved a $7 million grant to The Conservation Fund for the Upper Mississippi Forest project.

Full details are outlined in the news release below.

This action is in direct support of our VFVC objective to maintain Minnesota’s forest resource base and reduce losses caused by conversion, parcelization, and fragmentation of private lands and disposal of public lands. It aslo responds to the recognition by our partners including MFRC, MFRP and the Governor’s Task Force on Competitiveness of Minnesota’s Primary Forest Products Industry that fragmentation as the number one challenge to Minnesota’s forests.

News Release

Cathy Kennedy, The Conservation Fund, (612) 309-3951
Allison Rajala Ahcan, Blandin Foundation, (218) 259-2893


Donation Supports a Broad Effort to Keep Significant Expanse of Forest Intact; R.K. Mellon Foundation Also Commits $2 Million

Grand Rapids (April 1, 2009) – Demonstrating its commitment to strengthening Minnesota communities, the board of trustees of the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation has approved a $7 million grant for the Upper Mississippi Forest project.

The grant will be made to The Conservation Fund, which is helping facilitate the transaction between Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the landowner, UPM/Blandin Paper Company. If the Minnesota Legislature approves the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council’s recommendations to fund the balance of the costs, the Upper Mississippi Forest conservation easement will become the largest public access recreational area in the state of Minnesota, protecting the land against forest fragmentation.

“The Upper Mississippi Forest conservation easement will help protect the jobs of more than 3,200 families who rely upon this land remaining a working forest for their livelihoods, and hundreds of others who make a living in related businesses,” said Jim Hoolihan, Blandin Foundation president.

“Plus, the conservation easement will keep nearly 188,000 acres of Minnesota’s North Woods open for enjoyment by all and permanently protect forest habitats, creating a legacy that will live forever. By helping to secure this forest heritage project, the Blandin Foundation underscores its roots and invests in a natural asset that will contribute to our region and our state forever.”

Earlier this month, the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council recommended $20 million for the Upper Mississippi Forest as the first of two years’ allocations of funds that will be generated under the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment, which was overwhelmingly approved by Minnesota voters in November 2008. The Minnesota Legislature is now considering the recommendations of the Council.

In addition to the Blandin Foundation gift, The Conservation Fund, which is helping negotiate the working forest easement, also announced a $2 million gift from the R. K. Mellon Foundation, bringing the total private contributions to $9 million.
“The Blandin Foundation’s commitment to the Upper Mississippi Forest project is the largest private donation for a conservation project ever made in this state,” said Tom Duffus, Upper Midwest Director of The Conservation Fund. “The Blandin Foundation and R.K. Mellon Foundation gifts create a true public-private funding base for this project that will significantly stretch public dollars and enable the Outdoor Heritage Fund to complete this purchase in a timely way and fund other worthy projects around the state.”

The Conservation Fund intends to re-grant the foundations’ contributions to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources when the DNR closes on the transaction with UPM, Duffus said. The DNR’s Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council application indicated some $48 million are needed for the Upper Mississippi Forest project.

At 187,277 acres, the Upper Mississippi Forest lands combine with adjacent county, state and federal lands to create more than 4,000 square miles of uninterrupted forest habitat. The forestlands lie primarily in Itasca, Aitkin, St. Louis, Koochiching, Cass and Beltrami counties.

Owned and managed by UPM/Blandin Paper Company (unrelated to the foundation by a similar name), the forest project includes 60,000 acres of wetlands and more than 280 miles of lake and stream frontage. The proposed working forest conservation easement would be held and monitored by the DNR and would permit sustainable forest management and timber harvesting; public access for hiking, hunting, fishing and other recreational activities; and provide wildlife habitat protection. The project also will protect wetlands and water quality in the upper watershed and primary tributaries to the Mississippi River.

“The Conservation Fund’s work to bring private dollars to the table to move this project forward signifies the importance of conserving these forestlands for all to enjoy while maintaining the economic viability of the region,” said DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten. “The substantial gift by the Blandin Foundation demonstrates the foresight by local community leadership to leave this North Woods legacy for future generations.”

The Upper Mississippi Forest project is supported by statewide conservation, recreational and environmental organizations; and in the Grand Rapids area, some 20 business, local government and conservation entities have endorsed the Forest Legacy Program.

UPM Blandin Paper issued this statement about progress on the negotiations:

“UPM Blandin Paper is in serious discussions with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regarding a conservation easement project on UPM’s 188,000 acres of forest land in Minnesota. A successful project is one in which the parties can reach agreement on an acceptable easement, price and a schedule for timely closing. UPM Blandin Paper is committed to working on a solution that would require sustainable management of the property as it is today, regardless of who may own the property in the future.”

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About the Blandin Foundation
Based in Grand Rapids, Minn., the Blandin Foundation works to strengthen rural Minnesota communities, especially the Grand Rapids area, through grants, leadership development programs and public policy initiatives.

About The Conservation Fund
The Conservation Fund is dedicated to advancing America’s land and water legacy. With our partners, we conserve land, train leaders and invest in conservation at home. Since 1985, we have helped protect more than 6 million acres, sustaining wild havens, working lands and vibrant communities. We’re a top-ranked conservation organization, effective and efficient.

Thanks to William Harper for asking that we post a map of the proposed Upper Mississippi Forest Easement. Here it is.

Thank you!

Upper Mississippi Forest Easement map, taken from Forest Protection, Enhancement and Restoration in Minnesota, A Forest Collaborative Proposal to the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council.

Upper Mississippi Forest Easement map, taken from Forest Protection, Enhancement and Restoration in Minnesota, A Forest Collaborative Proposal to the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council.

Art NortonThanks to TNC field representative Art Norton for submitting an eye-witness account of yesterday’s critical meeting of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council at the state capital.

Art has played a key role in securing local support for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve a large tract of working forests in Itasca County with a conservation easement that would bind together over 292 sq miles of intact forests accessible to the public.

Here’s what Art had to say:

“Yesterday was another big step for Minnesota’s new dedicated funding program for natural resources protection. The Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council met all day in St. Paul and prioritized more than $68 million dollars worth of projects to restore and protect wetlands, prairies and forests.

And high on the list is the Upper Mississippi Forest project to maintain working forest, wildlife habitat and public access on almost 190,000 acres of forestland owned by UPM Blandin. In fact, it is top of the list in terms of funding, at $20,000,000 in this fiscal year, and another $20,000,000 allocated to finish the project in FY 2011. Important note: The Council deferred a final vote until next Monday due to some members’ concerns that “metro” area projects were underrepresented.”

The Star Tribune ran an article on the outcome Check it out for yourself. Look for the article titled, $68 million conservation wish list stalls at council By Doug Smith. The Pioneer Press ran a story too $40M urged to secure northern forest – By Dennis Lien.

Art encourages readers to check out the comments submitted by readers, along with the “agree-disagree” ratings of the Star Tribune readers. Consider adding your own voice to the debate.

At the Blandin Foundation we care about promoting “rural voice” — helping ensure that rural perspectives are well represented in public discourse and strengthening the capacity of rural people to be their own voice.

MinnesotaBrown is the creation of Iron Range writer, college instructor and political organizer Aaron J. Brown

MinnesotaBrown is the creation of Iron Range writer, college instructor and political organizer Aaron J. Brown

That’s why I pay attention to Minnesota Brown, Aaron Brown’s blog about life on the Iron Range. In his March 5 post, Who are the true owners of these lands, forests and waters?, Aaron makes a compelling case for why forests are so central Minnesota’s identity and future, and why the Upper Mississippi Forest conservation easement project on UPM lands – which Aaron calls a “once in a lifetime” opportunity — is so important to our future.

I urge you to read it and pass it on. And check out the comments too. As one contributor writes: “This is an issue that will have an impact in our lifetime, and will become even greater for our children. If action is not taken now, much stands to be lost.”

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