The thirsty potato fields carved from the forest in the state's Pineland Sands region continue to sow controversy, and a new Minnesota Court of Appeals decision isn't likely to change that.

The appeals court on Monday backed up the Department of Natural Resources' decision to skip a full environmental review of an irrigation project in north-central Minnesota, affirming a lower court's decision.

The DNR adequately evaluated the Nolte family's irrigation project in Wadena County and the agency's decision that the farm project "does not have the potential for significant environmental effects" stands, said appeals court Judge Tracy Smith, writing for the panel.

DNR officials were not available for comment Tuesday.

The ruling rankled the Environmental Working Group, part of a coalition of concerned citizens, Native American tribes and other groups, including one called Toxic Taters, who took the matter to court.

The Environmental Working Group said in a statement that it is "profoundly disappointed."

The three irrigation wells, which together pump about 100 million gallons of water a year, were originally linked to Fargo-based R.D. Offut, the country's largest potato producer, who sold the land to the Noltes.

"The people of the Pineland Sands region should not be forced to drink contaminated water so the world's biggest potato producer can sell more of its product to McDonald's," the Environmental Working Group said.

In an interview, the organization's senior vice president Craig Cox said the DNR is wrong and the Environmental Working Group is mulling a petition to the Minnesota Supreme Court to require the review.

Cox said there is overwhelming evidence that industrial potato cultivation, and traditional row crop farming in general, can't be done in the sandy soils of the Pineland Sands area without chemicals such as nitrate seeping into the groundwater and nearby lakes and streams.

Fixes are expensive.

When the drinking water for the city of Park Rapids became contaminated with nitrates, for example, it had to drill two new wells into a deeper aquifer for clean water. Then it had to build a new treatment plant to filter iron and manganese out of it. Most of the $3 million to $5 million cost was paid for with federal grants, the city said.

The DNR is evaluating water appropriations on a case-by-case basis, one well at a time, and ignoring the cumulative effects of the hundreds of wells permitted across the Pineland Sands, Cox said. The Boundary Waters receives much more attention, but the Pineland Sands area — which covers parts of Wadena, Cass, Becker and Hubbard counties — is near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and ultimately drains to it.

"Given how important this region is, it's not the right way to do business," Cox said.

The Noltes aren't celebrating the decision either.

Tim and Rita Nolte run a 500-head livestock operation with their children near Sebeka, Minn., in Wadena County. They're upset their family farm has become a lightning rod for environmental concerns when they have tried hard to work the land responsibly, Tim Nolte said.

"The whole thing is just so disappointing it's unbelievable," Nolte said. "It's just a numbing deal for us."

The trouble began a few years back when they purchased 620 acres of land from R.D. Offutt. Nolte said they saved 200 acres of the former timberland from being cleared by Offutt. They turned it into pasture, and will plant some of it with more trees.

As for the 300 acres at issue in the irrigation fight, the three wells are operating, he said. This year the family planted it all with corn for their cattle, along with a cover crop of rye and other grains. The remaining acres are pasture.

They do not raise potatoes for Offutt, Nolte said. But he added that he cannot say he never would. They currently grow potatoes on "just a few acres" for their own consumption and local eating.

"I'm not going to put myself in a corner and say I'm not going to do business with RDO [R.D. Offutt]," he said.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683