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51,000 private forest acres saved from development

ST. PAUL - Look for virtual "welcome" signs in Minnesota's northern forests.

"Rather than having a series of private landowners put up 'no trespassing' signs, we are putting up 'welcome' signs for Minnesota citizens to enjoy the great outdoors," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Wednesday in announcing a public-private partnership will pay $12 million to keep more than 51,000 acres of forest much as it is today.

Pawlenty joined with other state officials and private groups in giving Forest Capital Partners, a Boston-based company that owns the land, $12 million to not sell forest property for residential, business or industrial development. At the same time, the state gained rights to the land, allowing the public to use it.

"This is a $12 million investment that is going to prevent the subdivision and development of almost 80 square miles in northern Minnesota," Pawlenty said. "It is going to preserve jobs, it is going to protect wildlife, it is going to guarantee public access to these lands for recreation and other public purposes."

The owner will be allowed to continue selling rights to lumber mills to use trees from the land, but the company can do little else with the land.

The land is in Itasca and Koochiching counties. When the purchase is combined with nearby forests, nearly a half million acres of adjoining forest will be protected by the state.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, was one of a number of lawmakers applauding the action. For years, he has fought the continual fragmentation of forests - where forests come under ownership of a number of entities, with a variety of purposes, that creates a patchwork of forest plots.

"This project demonstrates how we can protect our private industrial forest lands while preserving public access," Saxhaug said.

Saxhaug said his constituents told him they would not support a Brainerd-type "very intense" development. Wednesday's announcement prevents that, he added.

"You see kind of an increasing hodge-podge of ownership and what amounts to a kind of a northern Minnesota development sprawl," Pawlenty said of the current situation.

The state is borrowing $6.6 million and private economic development and conservation groups are providing the remaining $5.4 million in the project, first announced last year but at that time it had no funding.

Pawlenty said north-central Minnesota's economy should benefit from the project since the forest will attract tourists ranging from berry pickers to hunters to off-road vehicle users.

Forest Capital Partners and previous owners have allowed the public to use the land, but that is changing as land is sold off. The deal announced Wednesday prohibits the owner from allowing any type of development, requires state-determined forest management practices and opens the land to most public uses.

The public-private coalition organizing the forest action, known as the Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership, earlier this year took similar action to protect another 1,600 acres of Itasca County forest.

Forest Capital Partners, the forest owners, praised the efforts.

"This project is a great example of how private landowners, conservation organization, public agencies and other entities can partner together to promote conservation," company official Brian Kernohan said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.