Mississippi Northwoods Habitat Complex Protection
This acquisition protected 2.7 miles of Mississippi river shoreline and nearly 2,000 acres of wetland and forest/upland habitat through fee title acquisition just east of Brainerd, MN.
About the Issue
This effort protected from development 2.7 miles of frontage in the headwaters region of this globally significant river, along with approximately 1,857 acres of forest land uniquely situated in the rapidly growing Brainerd Lakes Region of Minnesota. This parcel sits between two large tracts of forested public land along the Mississippi, creating a 9+ mile stretch of undeveloped shoreline which become one of the largest contiguous blocks of protected lake/river shoreline in the Brainerd lakes area—in addition to being one of its most scenic. The lands are adjacent to the Crow Wing County Memorial Forest, the Loerch State Wildlife Management Area, the State of Minnesota’s School Trust lands and Crow Wing County tax forfeited land (managed as forestland). The lands contain several unique habitat features including the Mississippi River watershed, the Sand Creek trout stream, approximately 240 acres of wetland, and forestland comprising of aspen/birch, jack, red and white pine, oak, and lowland hardwoods. The Mississippi River is clearly one of the most important freshwater resources in the State of Minnesota and beyond. A significant portion of this property fronts the Mississippi’s Stump Bay, a lake-like basin originally formed by the paper mill dam downstream in Brainerd. Stump Bay, and the larger basin around it, has characteristics of both river and lake habitats which provide a diversity of niches and support the area’s best cosmopolitan fisheries, including a world- class bass fishery. As a major migratory bird route, the Mississippi River basin is used by 60% of all birds found in North America, including waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and neotropical songbirds. The forest and riparian forest habitats of this project area are known to support osprey, Canada goose, great blue heron, killdeer, common snipe, American woodcock, and ruffed grouse. There are at least two bald eagle nests documented in the subject area. This section of the Mississippi River “flyway” is especially critical for waterfowl such as wood duck, mallard, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, hooded merganser, and American coot. The open waters of the bay uniquely serve as an early spring stopover for waterfowl before the lakes thaw. The wild rice foliage found in the bay and along the shore of this area provides security cover and loafing sites for migrating ducks; the wild rice kernals provide critical food source. 240 acres of wetland found within this project area are also critical brooding and feeding area for waterfowl. Mammals associated with the upland, wetland, lowland and riparian habitats of the acquired area include whitetail deer, gray wolf, coyote, red fox, river otter, beaver, muskrat, striped skunk, raccoon, opossum, weasel, mink, fisher, marten, porcupine, bobcat, black bear, red squirrel, shrews, pocket gopher, voles, bats, least chipmunk, gray squirrel, northern flying squirrel, cottontail rabbit and snowshoe hare. Reptiles and amphibians utilizing the wetland, riparian and upland habitats include the wood frog, spring peeper, western chorus frog, gray tree frog, northern leopard frog, green frog, American toad, blue-spotted salamander, tiger salamander, garter snake, redbelly snake, painted turtle, snapping turtle, and Blanding’s turtle, a MN DNR Threatened Species. A number of occurrences of the Blanding’s turtle, a MN DNR Threatened Species, have been documented on the property and there have been at least two eagle nests documented in the subject area. The contiguous forest block that is provided by this property will benefit all of these species as well as other rare species that depend on forested wetland and riparian areas. Conservation of this reach of the Mississippi River is extremely valuable in protection of water quality. The acquired forest lands are now dual certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and Forest Stewardship Council standards, ensuring a 9+ mile stretch of consistent forest management. The land buffers and enhances two other tracts of public land, resulting in a 6,207 acre block of contiguous forest lands on the Mississippi River in the popular recreational Brainerd Lakes area of north-central Minnesota. The public has access to these waters and forest lands for fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, skiing, snow-shoeing, nature viewing, hiking, restricted camping, horseback riding and other recreational activities. The property continues to host a popular snowmobile trail, important because of its proximity just 5 miles from downtown Brainerd. While conversion of forest lands into development properties in the Brainerd Lakes area has fragmented forests as well as these types of recreational trail systems, this acquisition will provide raw materials for the region’s forest products economy which in turn provides base economy jobs for Minnesota citizens. The public has gained in a less tangible but no less important way from the protected landscape, noise buffering and air and water quality benefits provided by these forested lands. This acquisition will provide a future opportunity to complete a critical linkage between the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail and the Paul Bunyan State Trail, both part of the Mississippi River Trail which is envisioned to be a 3,000 mile world class bicycling route, extending from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. The project had considerable support from a large and diverse collection of stakeholders including hunting and angling clubs, community foundations, natural resource organizations and trails organizations; such as Anglers for Habitat, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Deerhunters, MNDNR, Ruffed Grouse Society, The Nature Conservancy The Trust for Public Land; and more. The Trust for Public Land provided the leadership and coordination role needed in this conservation effort. Working together with these other stakeholders, The Trust for Public Land had endeavored to protect this particular stretch of Mississippi River land now known as Mississippi River Northwoods for over a decade. No fewer than three efforts were made over the 10-year period to protect this unique property using various protection tools, funding sources, and possible stewardship scenarios. These previous efforts were not successful due to a variety of factors including insufficient funding, differences of opinion about who should be the long term steward and not reaching agreement with the landowner on the terms of a sale. In approximately 2009, however, the long-time landowner, Potlatch Corporation, converted from a forest product company to a Real Estate Investment Trust and underwent a number of staffing changes. They increased their sale and development of land in Minnesota and in 2010 it was learned that they intended to develop the Mississippi River Northwoods parcel. After lengthy negotiations, The Trust for Public Land was able to reach an option agreement with the company for the purchase of this land for conservation in the spring of 2011. Shortly thereafter, The Trust for Public Land submitted an application for funding to LSOHC to protect this land. Originally it was thought that the DNR might be the permanent steward of this land given the importance of the land and the agency’s long-time involvement with and interest in its protection. Ultimately, it was determined that Crow Wing County would be the permanent steward of this land due to a variety of factors including this land’s proximity to other County-owned land. Accordingly, the County eventually became the grant applicant. As the holder of the option agreement with Potlatch, The Trust for Public Land continued to play an active role in this protection effort. It coordinated and paid for all the due diligence on the land including environmental assessments, appraisals, and title review. The Trust for Public Land also coordinated and managed education and outreach related to this protection effort with the many and various stakeholders mentioned above. The Trust for Public Land further assisted the County in thinking about how the land would be managed with this proposed funding alongside other county-owned lands as well as the critical conversations that took place with LSOHC and the Legislature in 2011-2012 that led to ultimate appropriation of OHF dollars. On November 29, 2012, The Trust for Public Land purchased the land from Potlatch for its appraised fair market value of $11 million and sold the land on the same day to Crow Wing County for the same amount. The Trust for Public Land continued to work alongside Crow Wing County, partners listed above and the LSOHC in 2012-2013 to re-introduce area residents and other stakeholders to the recently-protected and publicly-accessible Mississippi River Northwoods land through a series of written summaries, press pieces, celebrations and river outings. The County is proposing a change in the use and interest in 142 acres of the Mississippi River Northwoods acquisition. The parcel, located along Highway 210, has economic viability and opportunity to increase the County’s tax base. The County’s proposal would include a land exchange and transfer of the deed restriction to another County managed property adjoining the Mississippi River and Northwoods property. The County’s proposal will meet the procedures and criteria identified by the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for the change of use and replacement of interest. The identified properties will be equal in fair market value, in a reasonable equivalent location and have a reasonably equivalent useful conservation purpose. A copy of the fact sheet is attached to this report The $3M in leverage identified in Trust For Public Lands's original budget for this acquisition listed Parks and Trails Legacy and RIM as additional sources of funding. The leverage dollars were not needed or applied for because the second appraisal came in $3M lower than the original appraisal.