Itasca County


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!

UMF Map

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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.

Wooland owner Stan Maleska

Wooland owner Stan Maleska

The MyMinnesotaWoods.com blog picked up a story about Stan Maleska, an Itasca County woodland owner, written by our friend Julie Miedtke (University of Minnesota Extention) for the September 2008 issue of the Itasca Woodlands newsletter.

“Life’s Priorities:” A visit with Stan Maleska allows us to tag along with Julie and Stan as they walk his woods and talk about his life. It’s a heart-warming read.

While some Minnesota Forest Legacy Partners were in Ontario on the Canadian leg of the Seeing the Trees AND the Forest productivity tour, others gathered Thursday night at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis for the 15th annual Minnesota Environmental Initiative Award Ceremony. The Partnership won the Natural Resource Protection and Restoration award. Peggy Ladner of The Nature Conservancy accepted the award on behalf of the Partnership. A complete listing of nominees and winners is avaiable at MEI’s website.

Click here to listen to Blandin Foundation president and CEO Jim Hoolihan post-event podcast and learn more about the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership.

Minnesota Forest Legacy Partners at MEI Awards, 2008

In her article about the community forum to launch the new Itasca County Area Forest Legacy Fund, Grand Rapids Herald Review reporter Britta Arendt captured some of the sparky discussion that followed U of M Professor Mike Kilgore’s presentation on the threat of forest parcelization in the Itasca area. Do GenXers’ green consumer habits translate into a land conservation ethic? Britta quotes one community member as saying he thought his twenty-something daughters would be more likely to want to sell the family forest land to buy a Prius and solar panels than to inherit the land itself.

These hunches are empirically supported by new research conducted by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and the US Forest Service on what offspring of family forestland owners think about maintaining their family forestlands. The results, presented last fall to a VFVC audience by research author Catherine Mater, are alarming: many of these next-gen owners have had little involvement to date in the management of their family forest and express little interest in becoming more involved.

Clearly, figuring out Minnesota’s forestry hedgehog has to start with ensuring we’ve still got working forest landscapes left for GenXers and their children’s children to work, live, and play in.

Q: What public policy issue does research suggest could have the greatest impact on the threat of parcelization of forest land?

We’ll get to the answer to this question in a moment. First let me tell you that it’s been a very busy few weeks for Vital Forests/Vital Communities, and like the leaves outside my window, the dust is still settling.

I’ll save for another day stories about other September events including the Forestry and the BioEconomy Conference, Goods from the Woods, and the Governor’s announcement of the signing of the second Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership conservation easement on 51,000 acres – nearly 80 square miles – of Itasca and Koochiching County lands. Whew! Instead I will focus these few lines on some reflections about the September 12-13 Family Forest Stewardship Conference – Sustaining Our Commitment, Advancing the Agenda.

Over 100 folks joined us at Saint John’s to check in on the status of our collective efforts to advance the goal we agreed to in 2006 of increasing by one million the number of acres of family forest land under sustainable management. We have agreed to use stewardship plans as a measurable indicator to which we can hold ourselves accountable.

Participants spent the morning hearing about work accomplished over the past year, and the afternoon strategizing on where to focus our efforts going forward. Presentations and other details about the conference are on the conference home page, including some nifty images of Tom Kroll’s Oak Management Tour.

Conference proceedings , ably drafted by Dovetail Partners, Inc.’s Katie Fernholz, summarize the Action Agenda proposed by participants. These plans are more than aspirational “nice-to-do” ideas. Rather, the key players in getting this work done – Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Forestry Association, University of Minnesota Extension, and others – have reviewed these specific steps and explicitly signed on to walk their talk. Check out the proceedings to see how you can plug in. Together, we can continue to make real progress toward this important goal.

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Click on the image to participate in our Getting to the Next Million Acres Poll

Okay – now for the answer to the public policy question I posed at the beginning of my post.

Research suggests that health care could have the greatest impact on the threat of parcelization of forest land. This surprising finding came out during the keynote given by Catherine Mater of the Pinchot Institute. Catherine spoke about her not-yet-published research results on what offspring of current private forestland owners think about maintaining their family forestlands.

Catherine MaterCatherine’s research shows strong concerns among the next generation of landowners about the rising costs of health care and their ability to handle unexpected medical expenses. In fact, dealing with catastrophic health costs is cited most often by family forest land owners as the number one reason that prompts them to sell their forest land. Many times these sales result in parcelization, which in turn fuels forest fragmentation. (A study of these trends in Itasca County was recently released by the University of Minnesota’s Mike Kilgore et al. Click here to access the study)

Tree SnakeAs the U.S. Forest Service’s Brett Butler, another keynote presenter, observed in his commentary on Catherine’s presentation, it is reasonable to consider that the single most important public policy opportunity to address the threat of parcelization may be universal health care!

That gives all of us something to think about as the next Presidential election cycle heats up.

At last week’s community celebration of the newly signed working forest easement on Sugar Hills – 1,660 acres of unique northern hardwood forests – Senator Tom Saxhaug reminisced to the crowd about the handshake deal he made years ago as county commissioner with Jack Rajala that sealed the Rajala company’s commitment to the people of Itasca County to be good stewards of that special tract.

Sugar Hills Celebration

Lots of hometown folks including Elmer Cone, Mark Johnson, John Almendinger, Catherine McLynn, Bud Stone, and foundation trustees Marian Barcus, Jim Benson, and Mike Johnson — to name just a few with whom I had a chance to visit — and some big wigs from St. Paul and DC — like DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten, Congressman Jim Oberstar, and USDA Undersecretary Mark Rey — came out to the site, meticulously maintained in the winter by the Northern Light Noridic Ski Club, and on this summer day beautifully decked out with a tent and banners by a host of volunteers under the able direction of Trust for Public Land’s Becca Nash.

In his remarks, Rajala Companies President John Rajala told the audience the story of how Becca and her colleagues at TPL, and other members of the Forest Legacy Partnership, had worked doggedly with him and his family to craft the working forest easement that will allow the Rajalas to make good on Jack’s handshake in perpetuity. Jim Oberstar reached for lyricism when he told the crowd that their success in protecting this forest was a beacon for a better future.

It was a beautiful celebration of a visionary and successful public-private partnership on a beautiful day in a beautiful woods, graced by good fellowship, good feelings, and, at the end, by the sweet sound of voices lifted together in song as Mary and Don LaPlant offered musical accompaniment to America the Beautiful.

Sugar Hills Celebration

TNC’s Itasca Field Representative Art Norton led tours afterwards. If you weren’t able to be with us, email Art if you’d like to arrange your own tour.

It was a great day for Itasca Co., for Minnesota, and for future Minnesotans. I know that for sure because TNC’s Tom Landwehr took a call while at the podium from our future generations – calling to register their thanks.