Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council

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.


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. http://www.blandinfoundation.org

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. http://www.conservationfund.org

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.

Last week I got to sit in on part of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council’s (LOHC) marathon session to hear forestry proposals. The Council’s meeting began promptly at 8:00, took a mid-day recess while the House and Senate were in session, and then didn’t finish up until 8 p.m. Interest was high; the room was packed.

I made the trip to hear the presentation of the 12 collaborating organizations of a package of proposals for “Forest Protection, Enhancement and Restoration,” totaling just over $64 million. In particular, Blandin Foundation Trustees have signaled their interest in the Upper Mississippi Forest Project, a conservation easement project that would permanently protect 187,277 acres of working forestlands in and around Itasca county (basically, all of UPM’s forestlands in Minnesota).

DNR’s Dick Peterson, Program Coordinator for the Minnesota Forests for the Future Program, made the presentation of the Upper Mississippi Forest Project. His restrained affect notwithstanding, Dick successfully conveyed the historical significance of this opportunity: the working forest in question is about half the size of Hennepin County and would stitch together 4,000 square miles of public lands. He noted that besides the environmental benefits of the project – including significant habitat restoration, enhancement and protection achieved through requirements for ecological management of the property — protecting this working forest landscape will be important for Itasca area’s local economy.

Dick noted that 3,200 families are directly impacted by the property, including jobs in the woods, jobs at 17 mills in Minnesota that receive forest products off this forest, and hundreds of jobs in recreation and tourism. He emphasized that the easement would ensure permanent public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and other activities, along with permanent public access to more than 82 miles of snowmobile trails and more for ATV use with safeguards to protect the environment. Media coverage of the topic was substantial in local, regional and statewide newspapers this past weekend. Many of the major stakeholders in this project participated in the Foundation’s Seeing the Forest AND the Trees Study Tour project , and it was gratifying to see the relationships they strengthening during that experience put to good use in support of this project.

However, LOHC chair Mike Kilgore is quick to point out that even if the proposal receives strong support from the council, legislators will be the real “deciders.” During a visit to the Foundation last week, Mike said that the bigger issue at play here is not just what projects best serve Minnesota’s long term conservation goals, but what governance model for the new dedicated funds best serves the state. In Sunday’s Star Tribune, columnist Dennis Anderson in his story More power to the people outlines these battle lines and weighs in strongly on the side of the council, calling it a “beacon of hope” and “ by far the most inclusive, efficient and knowledgeable conservation committee this state has known. Ever.” Anderson also praises the “energy and intelligence” that Mike is bringing to his role as chair. All true, but I’d also add that he’s a really nice guy.