Drive through southwest and western Minnesota and the need for wildlife habitat conservation is obvious. Wetlands are drained, row crops are endless and ditches carry tiled water from farmlands directly into the Minnesota River or its tributaries.

Environmental damage can seem less evident headed up U.S. Hwy. 169 or I-35 or any route leading north from the Twin Cities. But significant conservation challenges exist nevertheless in central and northern Minnesota.

Some forests, for example, lack management and are growing old. Others are being sold piecemeal to the highest bidders. Still others have been invaded by buckthorn and other invasive plants. And some are being closed to public use.

Fortunately, millions of dollars recommended in the past 10 years or so for distribution by, among other sources, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) have directly benefited these lands, and in the process benefited the region’s deer.

Many if not most of the hundreds of thousands of hunters who will drive north this weekend to begin the firearms deer season will be beneficiaries as well.

Here’s a sample of some of the largest Minnesota forest conservation projects:

• In 2007, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and various conservation groups permanently protected 51,153 acres of northern Minnesota forests. The far-ranging deal kept the land open to recreationists, including hunters and campers, while also making its timber available to be harvested sustainably. Cost was about $12 million and was split about 50-50 between the state and the nongovernmental groups, among them the Trust for Public Land and The Conservation Fund.

• In 2010, the DNR, The Conservation Fund and Blandin Paper Co. completed a complex deal that forever guarantees public access to 187,876 acres. Among concerns alleviated by the deal was that the land would be broken up and closed off to the public, in which case hunters and others would lose. But so would wildlife, which suffers each time a large contiguous block of land is divided.

In the 20 years before the deal, Minnesota had lost a third of its industrial forestland, and the fear was (and is) that still more would be lost. The easement agreement cost $44 million, $34.25 million of which came from state taxpayers via the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The Blandin Foundation, Walmart’s Acres for America program and the Richard King Mellon Foundation kicked in the rest, helping to protect, as they did, 280 miles of water frontage, 60,000 acres of wetlands and 4,000 square miles of public and private forests.

• More recently, again with most of a $3.5 million price tag provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the LSOHC, 2,260 acres were protected for public use and forest management. The land had been closed to the public by Potlatch, its previous owner.

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), in partnership with The Conservation Fund and the Ruffed Grouse Society, has been at the center of this and other, similar conservation deals.

“We bought the land and then donated it to Cass and Hubbard counties, and they manage it for forest production and wildlife,’’ said MDHA executive director Craig Engwall.

• In another recent forest protection deal spearheaded by MDHA, The Conservation Fund and the Ruffed Grouse Society, 1,600 acres of land was purchased for about $2.4 million and donated to St. Louis County. Again, the land is being managed by the county to benefit forestry and wildlife. Of note, St. Louis County has resolved not to allow net gains of public lands. Yet they worked with MDHA to develop a mutually beneficial forest agreement.

• Finally, MDHA chapters receive about $1 million in relatively small Outdoor Heritage Fund grants to undertake wildlife conservation projects throughout the state. “Most of these projects benefit other wildlife, as well as deer,’’ Engwall said.

dennis.anderason@startribune.com