One of Minnesota’s largest-ever land conservation efforts was finalized this week with the official closing of a $48 million real estate sale between PotlatchDeltic Corp. and The Conservation Fund.

The Conservation Fund acquired 72,440 acres across 14 counties in northern Minnesota with the land permanently preserved as undeveloped for wildlife habitat, public recreation and sustainable timber harvest while also protecting water quality.

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. The nonprofit Conservation Fund is calling the project its Minnesota Heritage Forest.

The News Tribune first reported the land conservation effort Oct. 9.

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.

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The parcels, which Spokane-based PotlatchDeltic has owned for decades to supply its paper and lumber mills with trees, are located in St. Louis, Carlton, Itasca, Koochiching, Aitkin, Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Kanabec, Morrison and Wadena counties. 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.

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 spokesperson 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.

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.

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