DULUTH -- In one of the largest land conservation efforts ever in the state, a major sale of northern Minnesota forested land is nearly complete that will see 72,000 acres permanently preserved and critical wildlife habitat made off-limits to development yet open to logging and public recreation.
The deal, expected to close in November, will see Spokane-based PotlatchDeltic sell the land to The Conservation Fund for $48 million.
The goal is to eventually transfer the land to become part of existing state, county, tribal or federal forests, or other public land designations such as state wildlife management areas.
Combined, the scattered parcels are more than twice the size of Minnesota’s largest state park and will now permanently protect wildlife habitat, provide loggable timber for the region’s wood products industry and — in most cases — provide public-access recreation for grouse and deer hunters, birdwatchers, berry pickers and others.
Larry Selzer, president of The Conservation Fund, described the deal as “one of the largest land conservation efforts in Minnesota in recent history.” The nonprofit is calling the project its Minnesota Heritage Forest.
Kim Berns-Melhus, Minnesota director for the Conservation Fund, said the scattered parcels will fit in well with other public lands around them, keeping wildlife corridors open and allowing access for loggers when private landowners often shut them out.
“We are all about conservation that makes economic sense,’’ she said, noting keeping the land as sustainably-managed public forests will protect water quality, help store carbon to fight climate change, provide wildlife habitat continuity and sustain logging and mill jobs. “It’s important to us to continue the conservation of large tracts of working forest.”
The parcels, which PotlatchDeltic has owned for decades to supply its paper and lumber mills with trees, are located in 14 counties — St. Louis, Carlton, Itasca, Koochiching, Aitkin, Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Kanabec, Morrison and Wadena. The largest blocks are west of Orr in St. Louis and Koochiching counties, many of which are within the Bois Forte Reservation and which could be transferred to tribal trust, Berns-Melhus noted.
The sale liquidates the last land holdings of what was once Minnesota’s largest single private landowner. Potlatch, before it was PotlatchDeltic, once owned 330,000 acres of land across northern counties to provide trees for its mills. More than half Potlatch's original Minnesota land holdings have been sold to either The Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy or the Trust for Public Land for conservation purposes, a Potlatch spokeswoman told the News Tribune.
The company says the sale will have no impact on its last remaining Minnesota operation, the Bemidji lumber mill, which will continue to operate using trees cut on the same land. Potlatch formerly owned several facilities in the state, including the Cloquet paper mill now owned by Sappi and waferboard plants in Grand Rapids, Cook and Bemidji.
Potlatch officials described the latest sale as a win-win for both its shareholders and the Minnesota environment. The company, once primarily a wood products producer, has transitioned in recent decades to real estate management and sales.
“Proceeds from this transaction will further enhance our already strong liquidity position and flexibility,’’ said Mike Covey, chairman and chief executive officer of PotlatchDeltic, in a statement. The parcels included in the sale “are heavily weighted to more remote areas, ideal for conservation and working forest protection.”
With this latest purchase The Conservation Fund has now protected 311,000 acres of Minnesota forestland since 1985. It’s part of a long-term strategy by conservation groups, state forestry officials and others to preserve larger tracts of forest for both sustainable forestry and timber cutting but also for wildlife habitat. Recent history shows that, as forested land is sold off in small chunks for recreational or retirement properties, owners tend to stop active management, build roads, houses and cabins that impact wildlife, and post the land to keep the public out.
The huge land sale so far had gone unreported by most Minnesota media. Potlatch announced the land deal in June to industry publications to satisfy its federal legal requirements as a substantial corporate transaction. The Conservation Fund is waiting until the deal closes to herald the purchase.
The Conservation Fund raised money for forest land purchases nationally through the sale of a Green Bond to investors but eventually plans to be repaid as the land is transferred to permanent, public ownership. Both state and federal money is available to buy critical conservation land, such as money from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund.
The Conservation Fund said it will honor 70 existing deer hunting cabin leases that private parties currently have on some of the PotlatchDeltic parcels, so those parcels will not be open to the public until those leases terminate.
The Conservation Fund remains active in another major, long-developing northern Minnesota land deal that will see thousands of acres of state land locked inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness be traded to the federal government in exchange for land outside the BWCAW that the state can manage for logging and other uses. Much of the land involved in that deal also was formerly PotlatchDeltic land.
The Conservation Fund also was instrumental in a complicated deal, also involving Potlatch lands, that saw 21,000 acres of the Sax-Zim Bog northwest of Duluth preserved as a critical birding area.
Last year PotlatchDeltic sold about $1 million worth of land across 38 parcels to the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association which used state conservation grants to buy the land and then give it to St. Louis County to be managed for timber and public recreation.
In a similar but unrelated deal, the Nature Conservancy announced Wednesday that it has purchased 2,100 acres of private land west of Tofte, in the heart of the Superior National Forest, that will now remain undeveloped and will be opened to public access and recreation.