La Salle Lake: Protecting Critical Mississippi Headwaters Habitat
Protecting 980-acre LaSalle Lake property adjacent to the Upper Mississippi River, with biologically-significant forest habitat and miles of deep-lake and coldwater stream shoreline, to be managed by multiple DNR divisions.
This project seized a rare opportunity to protect a large area of habitat of regional and statewide significance that includes the entirety of Minnesota’s second deepest lake, a coldwater stream, high-quality forest and wetlands, and over a half mile of Mississippi River shoreline. The property is ranked as having Outstanding Biodiversity Significance by the Minnesota County Biological Survey (MCBS). This unique and important habitat was at risk of development and was listed for sale until The Trust for Public Land (TPL) obtained an option to purchase the property. Protection of the La Salle Lake property was the number one priority for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Northwest Region, and had strong support from multiple DNR divisions and interested stakeholders.
La Salle Lake is one of the most pristine and deepest lakes in Minnesota. It is 221 acres in size, 213 feet deep, and lush with MCBS ranked ‘Outstanding Quality’ aquatic plant habitat. It is a quality fishery that regularly produces trophy walleye, as well as supporting healthy populations of northern pike, largemouth bass, black crappie, and bluegill sunfish. Prior to protection, however, there was no public access to the lake. The DNR and the County had unsuccessfully attempted to obtain public access to this fishery for a number of years.
The property also contains over half a mile of La Salle Creek and key access to its upper stretches. The crystal clear creek originates in Itasca State Park approximately 8 miles to the southwest and meanders north along the narrow floor of a glacial tunnel valley with many seeps and springs, and eventually joins the Mississippi River on the property near a popular canoe landing. Portions of La Salle Creek are a designated trout stream because of high water quality, cold water temperatures, and ability to support coldwater fish species like trout. Little fisheries management work had been done here, however, because of limited access. This project improved public access to the creek and will allow a more intensively managed trout fishery.
This land also provides excellent hunting opportunities. Eight and ten point bucks are regularly harvested on the property and ruffed grouse are abundant. The forested uplands and lowlands are characterized by a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest with many fruit and nut-bearing varieties of trees and shrubs. There is also an old-growth northern white cedar forest north of the lake. Rugged terrain sloping steeply to the basin typifies the topography surrounding the lake and the upstream portions of La Salle Creek. Perhaps most importantly, the property serves to connect large parcels of land already in public ownership (Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, Itasca State Park, and county land) guaranteeing wildlife large landscapes in which to roam. Conservation of this land threatened with development greatly helped prevent forest fragmentation and natural resource degradation.
With respect to biodiversity, the property is “Outstanding.” Over 90 species of trees and shrubs and more than 140 species of herbaceous plants, including 12 species of orchids, have been surveyed and recorded growing in the area. MCBS has also identified numerous rare, threatened, endangered, and special concern species of plants and animals such as ram’s head lady slipper, hair-like sedge, northern oak fern, two species of caddisfly, and trumpeter swan. The property’s abundant and diverse landscapes also provide quality habitat for gray wolf, least weasel, fisher, river otter, bald eagle, osprey, common loon and many species of woodland warblers.
The original landowner required that a substantial portion of the property be acquired in the 2010 tax year. Accordingly, the project was structured in two phases. Phase I was acquired in December 2010 consisting of the 269 acres north of Scenic Byway Highway #9. DNR SNA acquired this property with existing funding and it is open to public hunting.
This proposal addressed Phase II, the remaining 721 acres of the property including all of the lake, which needed to close by December 31, 2011. Although DNR plans to manage this property as an integrated resource, some of the portions of the property are more appropriate for different uses than others. There is a small area (less than 100 acres) at the north end of the lake by the highway that has some improvements, such as cabins and an RV campground, which is most appropriately be managed by DNR Parks. (The remaining 621 acres are unimproved). Funding from the Parks and Trails Fund was provided for this park resource area. The East side of the lake contains some of the most environmentally sensitive and rare features most amenable to SNA management. Funding from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund was provided for this approximately 95 acre area. The West side of the lake has some of the best hunting land and sensitive shoreline and it is for this resource area that funding was sought from L-SOHC. This approximately 528-acre resource area will be managed as WMA/AMA/SNA, although the entire property has been designated as a state recreation area.
The appraised fair market value of this highly developable lakeshore property was $10,500 per acre. (There was some additional value is in some of the improvements at the north end of the lake by the highway, but no funding was sought from L-SOHC for these improvements). The WMA/AMA/SNA resource area consists of approximately 528 acres. Accordingly, for this area, $5,547,000 Outdoor Heritage Fund funding was provided for land acquisition capital, as well as $20,000 for DNR land acquisition costs and $65,000 for initial site development/restoration.