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


fvcm_logoEarlier this week I shared some reflections on the Forest Values & Carbon Markets conference held last week in partnership with over 30 organizations who have signed up for the “Next Million Acre” goal of increasing by one million the number of acres of family forest land under sustainable management. Here’s an update on next steps:

  • The conference web page has been updated with all of the PowerPoint presentations and reports, including the Manomet report.
  • We are planning a series of on-line activities to advance the dialog and discussion begun at the conference. We were energized by the participants’ smart and sparky questions – especially about the implications of carbon markets for forest management. These activities are likely to include a webinar, as well as presenters’ written and video responses to audience questions. Watch this space for details. In the meantime, you might be interested in seeing the aggregated list of QUESTIONS submitted.
  • A final summative report of the event, including the real-time audience opinion questions we asked and answered during the day, is being prepared. We’ll make that available just as soon as possible.
  • Photos from the conference, including the field tour, are available on our website.
  • And speaking of the field tour, here’s a link to Eli’s blog post, Silviculture and Carbon in the Cloquet Woods.
  • Yesterday, MPR aired a detailed report by Stephanie Hamphill, who attended the conference, about forest management and carbon trading. Check it out!

I am pleased to share notice of an exciting learning opportunity.

Thanks to University of Minnesota’s Bob Seavey, Dept. of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engeineering for bringing to my attention an innovative upcoming workshop being sponsored by the Forest Products Management Development Institute. Entitled “Selling Green to Survive the Housing Downturn and Beyond,” the workshop will feature presentations by VFVC friends and partners Jim Bowyer, Jeff Howe and Steve Bratkovich.

It will be held November 21 at the Radisson Hotel and Convention Center in Plymouth. Contact Bob Seavey at bseavey@umn.edu for more information.

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees Study Tour participants spent most of the trip’s final day in a group process “huddle”, sorting through the new ideas, impressions and information we were exposed to during the tour’s seven hectic days. Before we got on the plane to return home, we wanted to identify the key elements of a shared post-tour action plan that addressed our overall study tour goals of 1) increasing the quality and value of Minnesota forests and forest products, 2) optimizing the balance of forest benefits, and 3) developing a shared vision for forest management in Minnesota including increased productivity.

Each of the group’s six “Learning Track Teams” had developed a set of recommendations for possible inclusion in the plan – fourteen suggestions in all. For example, the Public Engagement Learning Track suggested a proposal to develop a demonstration project (community scale) for engaging private land owners. The Public Policy Learning Track presented, among others, a proposal to rationalize ownership of and intensify management of school and university trust lands. The Environmental Review and Permitting Learning Track brought forth an idea to develop a general permit for district heating facilities at the community scale, in order to remove procedural barriers to these systems in Minnesota.

Blandin Foundation Program Officer Matt Rezac lead tour participants through a “dot voting” exercise to sort through all of the ideas surfaced by the Learning Track Teams. While all of the ideas had merit, and many of them are likely to find legs in the work and support of individual tour participants or ad hoc groups of participants, our goal was to agree upon a manageable “short list” of shared projects we could agree to support together. Matt asked participants to cast their votes through the filter of two key criteria: 1) was the idea something the group as a whole was uniquely positioned to accomplish, could not be done by any individual institution or organization; and 2) was the idea something the voter was personally willing to advance.

In addition to these criteria, the Systems Change Learning Track invited participants to bear in mind a number of “filters” they developed to help evaluate proposed actions. They included:

  • Does not require the development of new knowledge
  • Can be accomplished within five years
  • No significant public opposition anticipated
  • No “solo champions”
  • Anticipation of measurable change
  • No localized actions unless part of a larger strategy
  • Integration of sustainability principles within the idea
  • Synergy with other adopted action steps
  • Builds upon assets (versus solving problems)
  • Doesn’t require significant public investment dollars

Two rounds of “dot voting” and plenty of lively discussion about the process and criteria landed the group on five key recommendations. Presented below in DRAFT form, they are still very raw and subject to change and/or consolidation. Study tour participants are reorganizinig into Action Teams around each of the ideas.

      1. Develop a forest bioenergy strategy for Minnesota
      2. Increase the use of intermediate harvest activity across all land ownerships to advance forest productivity, whether for timber, wildlife, recreation, biodiversity, and/or biomass
      3. Build a state-wide and regional constituency for investment in productive forests
      4. Increase the engagement of family forest land owners in sustainable and productive forest management

Foundation staff will be working with the teams over the coming weeks to translate the ideas into specific action plans. We are also working to produce a number of specific products, including a final report, video, and other communication and learning tools to help us all share our experience with others.

Stay tuned!

Our delegation of Seeing Forest AND the Trees study tour has now returned home safely from our eight-day whirlwind tour of forestry practices in Finland and Sweden. This post gives a snap shot of some of the highlights from our final day of counterpart meetings in Stockholm.

Friday morning we were hosted at the American Embassy by Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Silverman who introduced us to Ambassador Michael Wood’s “One Big Thing” project . Launched in September 2006, the project aims to promote cooperation between the United States and Sweden to accomplish a breakthrough in alternative energy technology. Our goal was to learn more about possible opportunities for Minnesota’s forest products industry to benefit from the project’s focus on promoting public/private sector R&D and collaboration in this field. The U.S. Embassy staff welcomed our visit as an example of the kind of exchange of people, ideas and information they hope their “One Big Thing” project will help promote.

Even the briefest introduction to Sweden’s economy makes it pretty plain why Ambassador Wood decided the United States has plenty to gain from Swedish bioenergy know-how. In 2005 the government of Sweden announced its intention to make Sweden the first country to break its dependence on petroleum, natural gas and other “fossil raw materials” by 2020, without building more nuclear power plants. According to the Swedish Energy Agency, today Sweden’s use of renewable energy sources has risen to 43 per cent, up from 30 percent in 1990.

To achieve this progress, Sweden uses a combination of policy tools and market-based incentives. The national government sponsors innovative programs to promote the use of alternate fuels for everything from home heating to transportation. Many neighborhoods in Sweden use a central furnace that consumes biological fuels, instead of oil, to provide hot water for all of the nearby homes. (Earlier on the tour our delegation got a first-hand look at just such a member-owned “district heating facility” in a small community near Joensuu, Finland).

Serendipitously, the same day our delegation was meeting with counterparts in Stockholm, back home in Grand Rapids folks from the Itasca Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) were teaming up with Minnesota’s BioBusiness Alliance to host over a dozen Swedish entrepreneurs and business representatives visiting our region as part of the BBA’s International BioEnergy Conference held in Mankato at the end of September. While we were learning about Swedish breakthroughs in alternative energy production and policy, the Swedish delegation in Grand Rapids was getting an eyeful of facilities in Itasca County, including the Rapids Energy Center, the recently closed Ainsworth Plant, and the Rajala Mill in Deer River. While we feasted on Swedish buns and coffee at the Embassy, the Swedes in Grand Rapids enjoyed a goulash breakfast in the “cook shack” at the Forest History Center.

During our meeting at the US embassy a climate specialist from the Swedish Forest Agency gave us an overview of the forest bioenergy sector in Sweden, and the Director of the Federation of Swedish Forest Owners described her members’ interest in opportunities presented by the bioeconomy to use forest resources as a source of new income for family forest land owners.

However, our delegation seemed most interested in the presentation by Jonas Rudberg, CEO of Chemrec, a Swedish company helping pulp and paper mills transform into biorefineries using a unique, proprietary black liquor gasification technology. Rudberg described a newly announced partnership between Chemrec and Ohio-based NewPage Corporation to explore the possible introduction of new technology at the NewPage paper mill in Escanaba, Michigan. The proposed new facility would employ Chemrec’s black liquor gasification technology to convert waste from the paper pulping process into synthesis gas. The synthesis gas can then be processed into a variety of biofuels. Chemrec estimates that this technology could enable the Escanaba mill to produce up to 13 million gallons of liquid biofuels per year. This new plant is a corner stone of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s efforts to position her state at the forefront of renewable next-generation fuels. Rudberg said that Chemrec officials had visited the Boise facility in International Falls during the company’s initial search for a North American facilities site, but ultimately negotiations had been unsuccessful, due to insufficient public-private financing options.

Afterwards, conversation on the tour bus suggested that the Minnesota delegation was struck by the need for Minnesota to develop a state-wide forest bioenergy strategy. But more on that in our next post.

Productivity Tour participants Bud Stone, Jim Hoolihan, Abel Ponce de Leon, Stefan Bergmann and Jim Bowyer at the Metla Institute, Joensuu, Finland

Productivity Tour participants Bud Stone, Jim Hoolihan, Abel Ponce de Leon, Stefan Bergmann and Jim Bowyer at the Metla Institute, Joensuu, Finland

Productivity Tour staffer Allison Rajala sends along this post after one very long and content-rich day that started in Finland and ended in Sweden.

We were warned from Day One that Thursday would be intense — and it was!

It began at dawn with a traditional Finnish breakfast of bread, cheese, porridge and coffee at the Mekrijarvi Research Station. Just like the University of Joensuu students and researchers stationed there, the night before we enjoyed a late night of traditional “smoke” saunas, very cold swims and swapping stories in the dorms, reminiscent of younger days.

Despite a drizzly day, typical for October in Finland, UPM’s Finnish foresters generously escorted our hardy band through the deep woods of eastern Finland. Among our stops, we observed new technology developed by UPM field staff to clear brush around four-year-old planted spruce, how they thin to improve genetics and maximize value, and how they are researching the emerging practice of harvesting stumps–quite different from Minnesota and generating quite a buzz.

Policy researcher and sociologist for the Finnish Environment Institute, Dr. Taru Peltola, helped us to experience forest community life. She introduced us to the staff of a local district heating facility–typical for rural Finland. These small, distributed heating facilities convert woody debris and roundwood to energy and symbolize the value of thriving forests to the rural landscape. Biomass energy is alive and well in Karjelia.

Metla Institute in Joensuu was quite a place. Their top researchers shared breaking news surrounding global warming, the effects of Russian tariffs, wood technology and much more. One of the finest forest research institutions in the world, Metla also is home to one of the world’s most beautiful examples of architecture utilizing local wood resources.

Two bus rides and two airplane rides later, we arrived safely at midnight in Stockholm’s historic old town for some much needed sleep after an 18-hour day. Wow!

Thanks to UPM Blandin Paper Co’s Jim Marshall for sharing his musings from the Seeing the Forest AND the Tress Productivity Tour with VFVC Blog readers.

As we flew over Finland’s famous Lake Saimaa on the way north from Helsinki, I knew our group was enjoying the spectacular view of water, autumn colors and the generous mix of forests and small farms below. I reflected on all the things our group had already accomplished in meetings with counterparts from the Finnish forestry sector, at the US Embassy in Helsinki, and in small informal discussions amongst ourselves.

As the bus pulled away from the Joensuu airport, remarkably, we saw commercial thinning going on right out the bus windows. I began to get excited all over again, knowing that soon we would be out into the forest together, learning from local University experts about social and ecological aspects of the Finnish Forest “cluster” as well as hearing from my UPM colleague Matti Ylanne about the company’s methods for improving biodiversity on its forest harvest sites.

Tomorrow we will be stopping to view mechanized cleaning, manual pre-commercial thinning, energy wood harvesting, and commercial thinning—an ambitious program for the morning drive on our way back to Joensuu. It is important for us to see and understand what is possible using intensive forestry methods. Here in Finland, we learned today, the history and culture drive landowners toward intensive silviculture (see Bernadine’s post below). The results are that a lot of timber is grown and harvested, fueling one of the worlds’ most impressive forest based economies. I’m looking forward to hearing what my fellow travelers see and think tomorrow.

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