The conversion of thousands of acres of central Minnesota's pine forests to potato fields has sparked environmental concern.

Communities, citizens and state officials are worried the transformation is polluting and depleting aquifers.

But there's another worry: loss of wildlife habitat.

In response, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) is proposing a novel and ambitious $19 million plan to buy about 10,000 acres of forest from Potlatch Corp. in Cass, Wadena and Hubbard counties to prevent their conversion to cropland, reopen them for public hunting and allow people to use them to access thousands of acres of other public lands.

"We're trying to protect forest habitat and keep it open to public hunting," said Craig Engwall, MDHA executive director.

Preserving forest also would protect water quality in the sandy-soiled area. Native jack pine stands also would be restored and enhanced under the proposal.

"The habitat we're targeting isn't hypothetically under threat of disappearing, it has been disappearing," Engwall said. "If we don't do this project now, it's very possible those lands could be converted to agricultural lands."

Under another unusual aspect of the proposal, some of the land purchased could be turned over to a county for management, and some would remain under MDHA ownership and management. None would be turned over to the state.

All three counties support the proposal.

The project would be the Deer Hunters Association's largest in its 35-year existence. If the 20,000-member group doesn't act, Engwall said, Potlatch Corp. likely will continue to sell off its lands, and more acres eventually will be converted to potato fields. The company still owns about 37,000 acres in the Crow Wing River watershed, the MDHA's target area.

"We're not saying potato farming is bad," Engwall said. "It's a big part of the local economy. But we think some of these lands in the project area should be preserved as forest."

To pay for the land, the Deer Hunters Association is seeking $19 million in Legacy Amendment money from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. It is just one of 42 proposals totaling nearly $286 million that was submitted to the council last week, the deadline for proposals. About $100 million in Outdoor Heritage Fund money is available for 2016.

Engwall is hopeful the council will look favorably on the MDHA's idea. The 12-member council will review the proposals and make recommendations to the Legislature by fall.

The targeted area — bordered roughly by Hackensack, Park Rapids, Wadena and Staples — has high deer densities, Engwall said, but preserving the forest also provides habitat for bears, ruffed grouse, wolves and other wildlife.

The proposal would be groundbreaking for the MDHA. It would retain ownership of some of the lands, but would contract with someone to manage the land. The group also would pay property taxes on the acreage, using income from timber sales and from the state's Sustainable Forest Incentive Program, which pays private landowners who do sustainable forest management practices.

The acquired land would be managed, meaning logging could occur.

Acreage in Cass County could be turned over to the county. The county's land department currently manages some 250,000 acres of county forest, and the county itself has received Outdoor Heritage funds to buy about 1,500 acres of key forest parcels over the past several years. It has applied for $1.3 million for next year.

"We've been doing on a micro scale what the MDHA proposes to do on a large scale," said Josh Stevenson, Cass County land commissioner. The forest currently is a patchwork of public and private ownership.

"The Deer Hunters Association proposal will help slow fragmentation of the forest, will slow conversion of forest [to agriculture] and will provide public access to currently inaccessible public land," he said. "In a lot of cases, a 20- or 40-acre parcel will provide access to thousands of acres of public land."

Cass County officials are concerned about the forest conversion trend, Stevenson said. Some 1,200 to 1,500 acres of forest in the county has been converted to potato fields.

"There's concern for habitat loss and potential groundwater contamination," he said. "But there has to be a balance. You can't have no new agriculture."

Forest conversion has been slowed since February when Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr ordered a study of the water and wildlife impacts. Pending that study, the state won't consider permit applications for high-capacity wells needed by potato growers.

But no one believes the pressure to convert pine trees to potatoes has ended.