Protecting Sensitive Shorelands in North Central Minnesota, Phase 1
Landowner-donated conservation easements in Aitkin, Cass, and Crow Wing counties permanently conserved 260 acres and 3.6 miles of critical shorelands for the protection and enhancement of fish and wildlife habitat and continued public recreational enjoyment of these aquatic resources.
The deep, cold water lakes of Aitkin, Cass, and Crow Wing counties in North Central Minnesota are considered to be some of the most desirable recreational lakes in Minnesota. These high quality lakes are biologically important systems that support fish, game and wildlife and have high ecological value to Minnesotans for recreation as well as contributing to the sustainability of Minnesota’s $11 billion/year tourism industry. With steady population growth in this region and projected increases of up to 30% by 2030, these lakes are continually threatened by increasing shoreland development. As shorelines are developed and land is cleared, habitat for fish and wildlife is reduced and in turn fish populations and other wildlife that depend on a healthy shoreland zone decline.
This project, “Protecting Sensitive Shorelands in North Central Minnesota” permanently protected 260 acres and 18,915 shoreland feet (3.6 miles) of critical fish and wildlife habitat. Willing landowners donated a conservation easement on their property to limit future development and shoreland disturbance. The conservation easements are held and monitored in perpetuity by the easement holder, the Minnesota Land Trust. Not only do the protected lands have critical shoreland habitats, all the protected properties also provide important forested habitats for upland wildlife, and keeping forest lands intact will reduce erosion and runoff to the lakes to help maintain high quality water environments for fish and recreational enjoyment.
Participating landowners donated over $800,000 in land value to provide fish and wildlife habitat protection to the public of Minnesota. As a financial incentive for the land donation, the associated transaction costs for closing the easement, such as surveys, title and legal work, and other professional services along with easement stewardship was covered by the Outdoor Heritage Funds appropriated to the project. As further incentive, landowners were provided an IRS-approved appraisal of the conservation easement to use for their charitable donation of conservation value.
This project was accomplished through the collaborative efforts of the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation, a regional land conservation nonprofit who provided project administration and landowner outreach/coordination to point of securing a commitment to donate a conservation easement, and the Minnesota Land Trust, who drafted the easements, holds the easement is perpetuity, and is responsible for easement stewardship. Prior to starting the project, the most important shoreland habitats in the North Central Minnesota region, including Aitkin, Cass, and Crow Wing counties, was identified using science-based strategic planning and evaluation models. The initial criteria for parcel selection was based on the Minnesota DNR’s Sensitive Shoreland Study conducted on 19 lakes in Cass County from 2008-2010, in which they used 13 ecological parameters to determine the most important shoreland for fish and wildlife habitat protection. In Cass County alone, over 83 miles of largely undeveloped and critical shorelands were identified. Through this project, the DNR’s initial work was expanded into a rapid assessment model for other shorelands in the region. The model was then applied to other critical lakes in the region and assessed, in collaboration with the three county local governments, to further identify important shoreland for fish and wildlife habitat protection. The prospective parcels are largely undeveloped shorelines in areas of high-conservation significance as determined by these studies and field surveys. Once parcels were identified, outreach was conducted to specific landowners about the project and its benefits.
Several easements were started in this Phase I project but were not completed for various reasons, including access issues, family conflicts, and estate issue among others.
An important conclusion of this Phase I project was the realization that future protection work will need to focus primarily on the purchase of easements—either in full or as a partially-donated easement. Through extensive outreach and many landowner conversations, participating landowners were secured for fully-donated easements, but many landowners, though interested, could not participate in that capacity citing impending changes in IRS charitable deduction limits and changing economic conditions as reasons why they could not ultimately fully donate a conservation easement. It is the conclusion of the participating organizations that the low-hanging fruit of landowners willing to donate easements has been exhausted. While there may still be some donated easements in Phase II and beyond, most easements will need to be acquired.
Phase II of this project was funded by the Minnesota Legislature in 2014 to continue the important work of fish and wildlife habitat protection on critical shorelands in North Central Minnesota with expansion to Hubbard County. Landowner outreach in Phase I will be utilized to target additional parcels for conservation easements in Phase II.
Shoreland disturbance due to development is one of the greatest threats facing Minnesota’s lake resources. Permanently protecting the most critical shorelands is an essential strategy to maintain Minnesota’s fisheries and wildlife habitat; important waterfowl breading and feeding areas; and the overall health of the state’s aquatic resources upon which the public relies for recreational enjoyment and which drive the economic engine sustaining many North Central Minnesota counties.
This project achieved permanent conservation of 260 acres and 18,915 shoreland feet (3.6 miles) of critical shoreland fish and wildlife habitats for approximately $18 per shoreland foot and $1300 per acre—all projects costs considered. Given that the shorelands on prime recreational lakes in this region of Minnesota can cost up to $4,000 per shoreland foot to purchase in fee, the state of Minnesota received an excellent return on its investment in protecting and conserving critical shorelands in North Central Minnesota. While the protected properties are still privately owned, the Minnesota public benefits from the habitat and water quality protection achieved. The project achieved the original goal of 3-4 miles of shoreland protected, but fell short on the acreage goal. However, the lessons learned from the project will inform efficient and targeted future aquatic habitat protection work in North Central Minnesota (Phase II and beyond). Plus the unused appropriation can be returned to North Central Minnesota for additional conservation based on lessons applied and continuing opportunities for permanent land conservation to protect some of the most vital and critical fish and wildlife habitat in Minnesota.