GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. -- Hunters and hikers have lost access to swaths of the northern Minnesota forest in recent years, but taxpayers are stepping in to keep nearly 300 square miles near the Mississippi headwaters as is: Wooded and open to the public.
The $45 million conservation deal with UPM Blandin Paper is one of the 10 largest such projects in the country, preserving an area the size of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. The project gives the state permanent land rights and ensures public access.
It means no development and no subdividing land thick with aspen, spruce, maples and wildlife, from the ovenbird to the gray wolf. Logging will continue under conditions designed to mimic the forest's natural life cycle. And people will have access for activities like snowmobiling and fishing the lakes and streams that drain into the Mississippi River.
"That land will forever be forest," said Michael Kilgore, head of a state council that decided the Upper Mississippi Forest Project will get some of the first cash raised when the state sales tax goes up July 1.
The push to preserve is a rare example of new spending in tight times, with conservation in many places losing out as governments slash their budgets. Minnesota voters amended the state constitution last year to pay for outdoor and cultural programs. The tax amounts to 15 cents on a $40 purchase, bringing in an estimated $234 million a year over the next quarter-century.
Minnesota joins Missouri and Alabama in reserving some sales tax cash for natural resources, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and Iowa voters will decide whether to do so in November 2010. While many states use excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, special license plates and other programs, those bring in much less than dedicated sales taxes.
In Minnesota, the first two years of sales tax money will go to programs from monitoring chemicals in lakes and rivers to fostering the Dakota and Ojibwe languages.
But the largest share of the money for a single project, $36 million, will go to the Upper Mississippi Forest Project. With that and $9 million from two private foundations, the Department of Natural Resources will buy rights known as conservation easements from UPM Blandin Paper to more than 187,000 acres. The deal will be done by late next year.
Blandin, owned by Helsinki-based UPM-Kymmene Corp., is the state's last major forest products company that hasn't sold off or leased some or all of its logging grounds. As those lands passed into new hands, public users ranging from berry pickers to snowmobilers were shut out.
The Blandin land consists of large chunks around Grand Rapids and Hibbing and smaller pieces scattered in seven northern counties. It looks wild, although it has been logged before.
South of Grand Rapids, the woods grow to the edges of private dirt roads winding away from town, lime-green aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze. Birders, grouse hunters and snowmobilers revel here, along with wood ticks and wild turkeys.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal," said Craig Engwall, a regional Natural Resources Department manager.
Preserving forest land has become a state priority in recent years, one that will quicken thanks to the sales tax money. The Department of Natural Resources has identified a million acres of undeveloped forest at risk of being broken up and sold, and has signed or is acquiring conservation rights to 150,000 acres with other funds.
In the Upper Mississippi Forest Project, UPM Blandin will retain ownership of the land -- along with the limited logging rights -- and keep paying about $900,000 in property taxes each year, said Cheryl Adams, a forest ecologist with the company. She said UPM Blandin manages the land to grow timber, which is worth more than pulp trees and requires a more ecological approach.
Still, State Rep. Rick Hansen noted that the state isn't getting the rights to wetlands or carbon emissions credits for the land, passing up a potentially valuable part of the deal.
He said UPM-Kymmene could gain from those rights under a national or global plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions, or could drain wetlands elsewhere because it can claim 66,000 acres on the Upper Mississippi land.
Hansen, a Democrat from South St. Paul, also said permanent conservation easements haven't been tested beyond a few decades, so questions remain about how well they work over generations.
"Companies change hands in this worldwide environment in the blink of an eye," he said.
Sharon Pond, a spokeswoman for UPM-Kymmene, said the company hasn't announced any changes for the land. "We will continue to manage it for best practices for forest sustainability," she said.
UPM Blandin Paper General Manager Joe Maher said the company had looked at working out a deal for conservation easements previously, but it wasn't feasible until the sales tax money was available.
That it is pleases Mark Johnson, head of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, which pushed hard to pass the constitutional amendment after years of trying.
"Nothing's free anymore. Nothing probably ever was free," he said. "And thankfully we've got some money to actually pay for these things now."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)