At a time when "no new public lands" is a popular cry at the State Capitol, a trio of conservation groups has attracted powerful support for state taxpayers to buy 7,000 to 8,000 acres of northern forest in the heart of the resistance area.

The $2.4 million Laurentian Forest St. Louis County Habitat Project appears headed for uncontested passage at the Legislature this spring, backed unanimously by St. Louis County's board of commissioners and supported by seven other northern counties.

Deer hunters, grouse hunters, birders, trappers and ATV trail riders will benefit along with anyone who favors the preservation of clean water and large blocks of ecologically managed woodlands.

The proposed wildlife habitat project overcame naysayers by building in timber revenue to compensate local taxing districts for the loss of current property tax income. Timber revenue often exceeds the estimated property tax revenue of $6 per acre on lands targeted by the habitat project.

"At a time when we have these concerns about adding public land, it's great and refreshing," said Steve Hobbs, Minnesota state director for The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit land conservation group. "It's what makes sense in St. Louis County."

The Conservation Fund joined with the county, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Ruffed Grouse Society in proposing what will be a collection of land buys from the Potlatch Corp. Minnesota's tax-funded Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Committee embraced the idea and recommended it for legislative approval. It's part of the committee's $93.8 million package of recommendations this year for outdoors conservation and preservation.

Prairie habitat projects usually garner more than half of all Lessard-Sams appropriations, but this year's northern forest projects could total $21 million if all of them are approved.

"You know it's a great project when we're doing land acquisition in the heart of the area where there is resistance to any acquisition of public lands," said Craig Engwall, executive director of the deer hunters' association.

Engwall said a key to the success has been working closely with St. Louis County on identifying potential parcels. Potlatch has been divesting its Minnesota land holdings since 2008. The company's portfolio in St. Louis County is down to 70,000 acres, from a previous total of 110,000 acres. Most sales so far have been in units of 160 acres or less for private recreational use, and conservationists fear that more fragmentation would be detrimental for wildlife habitat, clean water and public recreation opportunities.

As proposed, the Laurentian Forest project would provide a three-year window for the parties to agree on what lands should be purchased by The Conservation Fund and relayed to county ownership. Engwall said coarse review already has narrowed the field of possibilities to about 11,000 acres.

"Now we'll have time to thoroughly review and pick the cream of the crop," he said.

Working the land

St. Louis County already manages vast tracts of forest for timber production, employing more than 60 people in its Land and Minerals Department. They work toward distributing net gains from those resources to local taxing districts.

Mark Weber, the county's land commissioner, said the 7,000 to 8,000 acres of woodlands to be purchased from Potlatch will be added to the department's current portfolio of 870,000 acres of tax-forfeited, county-owned land. The coalition of conservation groups — in conjunction with the county — will look to consolidate existing public land ownership, including woodland tracts that would make the county's timber business more efficient, Weber said.

Ecologically-sound timber harvesting is also good for the habitat of deer, grouse, goshawks, songbirds and other wildlife. The arrangement also will allow for potential land swaps, Weber said.

For instance, St. Louis County could identify parcels purchased by The Conservation Fund that are best suited for county forest management. The Conservation Fund could swap those pieces for county land that's not as important for timber harvest but good for wildlife habitat, public hunting, other recreation and for protecting water resources. Conservation Fund managers could then enroll the swapped land into a sustainable state forestry program that would generate $7 an acre — an amount that could be given back to St. Louis County.

"We're looking for creative solutions" to compensate the county for lost tax base, Weber said.

The arrangement also has the backing of the Northern Counties Land Use Coordinating Board, eight counties that represent a third of Minnesota's land mass and 46 percent of its remaining wetlands.

Rich Sve, chairman of the Coordinating Board, said last year in a letter to the Lessard-Sams Committee that the Laurentian Forest project is much like 2016's Jack Pine Forest/Crow Wing River Watershed Habitat Project, which was headed by the deer hunters' association. Both projects were launched in close collaboration with the affected counties, Sve said, with an eye not only toward habitat protection but also economic considerations and public recreation opportunities.

"We are a region rich in land and water resources subject to the realities of a rural economy," Sve wrote.