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.


Good news!

Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Mark Rey was in Minnesota today to announce along with DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten that the Koochiching Koochiching Forest Legacy ProjectForest Legacy Project will receive nearly $3.5 million in federal dollars. This Phase II funding will be used towards adding roughly 38,000 acres to the initial 51,000 Forest Capital Partners easement closed in October 2007. A third phase is planned for 2009, bringing total acres of the Koochiching Forest Legacy Project to just under 128,000 acres – that’s close to 200 square miles!

Today’s Duluth News Tribune did a great job explaining the project and the concept of a working forest conservation easement:

Federal dollars will buy conservation easements in Koochiching, Itasca counties
BYDuluth News Tribune
March 31, 2008

Federal officials this morning will celebrate their installment of a public-private conservation effort to protect part of Minnesot’s north woods from development. Top U.S. Forest Service officials will be in St. Paul to herald a $3.5 million appropriation to buy conservation easements on undeveloped, privately-owned forest land in southern Koochiching and northern Itasca Counties.

It’s the second of three phases of the Koochiching Forest Legacy Program backed by state and federal agencies and private conservation groups in an effort to keep large tracts of contiguous forest from being sold, divided and developed.

The program has been praised for preserving the environmental benefits of undeveloped land, providing trees for local loggers and keeping land open to the public for hunting and hiking.

In December the News Tribune reported that the $3.5 million was included in Congress omnibus spending bill.

Last year the state sealed a deal to buy conservation easements on 51,163 acres in the area.

This year’s federal aid will add another 38,331 acres. The third phase is set for 2009 and will add another 38,300 acres.

When completed, some 127,794 acres ” nearly 200 square miles ” will be included in the project. Much of the land is in and near the Koochiching and George Washington state forests. It’s the largest such forest land conservation effort state history.

The forest parcels once were owned by Boise Cascade Corp. and were managed for decades as wild land to provide trees for the company’s mills. It now is owned by Forest Capital Partners which makes money by holding and selling land as a real estate investment to be developed.

Under the forest legacy program, Forest Capital Partners will be paid for the conservation easements. The company will continue to own the land and pay property taxes, but the state will hold the legally binding easements that prevent the land from being sold or developed.

The company will continue to manage the land for forestry and sell trees to be cut by loggers, providing continued wood for the region’s mills.

In addition, the land will remain open to public access like deer hunting, berry picking and hiking.

While northern Minnesota has large tracts of federal, state and county-managed public lands, half of the state’s forests are privately owned. That land is rapidly rising in value and is being sold for recreation and retirement homes at a breakneck pace.

Keeping large tracts of private forest undeveloped is considered a critical issue for many of the region’s wildlife, including birds, which tend to leave areas where new roads, homes and cabins are built. The private parcels in the program often help form connections or corridors to large public tracts.

In addition to the U.S. Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Blandin Foundation, Conservation Fund and Trust for Public Land are involved in the effort with Forest Capital Partners.

Similar efforts to use conservation easements to keep forested private land undeveloped have been struck in Lake County, southern Itasca County near Grand Rapids and in Crow Wing County near Brainerd.

Minnesota Forest Resources Council Executive Director Dave Zumeta told participants at a recent MFRC-landscape committee summit here in Grand Rapids that parcelization remains at the top of the list of forest policy challenges facing Minnesota.

VFVC blog readers surely are aware of the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, created to address this challenge. To date the Partnership has concluded two major easements, Sugar Hills and the Koochiching-Washington Forest Project.

Community celebrations of the new Kooch-Washington conservation easement in Grand Rapids on Feb 1-2 included a dinner to thank Forest Capital Partners, the landowner, and a 60 mile snowmobile ride through the industrial forestlands now in conservation easement under this agreement.

Forest Capital Partners recognitionKooch-Washington Legacy Project snowmobile ride

Meanwhile, across town from Dave and the MFRC meeting, community members braved the bitter cold and dark of an early January morning to learn about an innovative new family-scale opportunity to address the parcelization threat to forests in Itasca County. On behalf of her visionary Board of Directors, Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation (GRACF) Executive Director Wendy Roy described GRACF’s new Itasca County Area Forest Legacy Fund.

Inspired by the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, this new fund is GRACF Forest Legacy Fund designed as a tool to help family woodlot owners keep their private forestlands intact and build their own forest legacies for the future. The fund also will be used to raise awareness about the importance of forest stewardship. The GRACF will use the services of the Minnesota Land Trust to craft, monitor, and hold the easements in perpetuity. For more information, contact the fund at: or 218/327-8855.

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.

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.