The Conservation Fund has bought more than 70,000 acres of Minnesota forestland from the Potlatch lumber company for nearly $48 million in one of the largest conservation efforts in the state's recent history.

The national nonprofit said the sale closed Wednesday, and that it plans to transfer ownership of the land to state, county, local and tribal governments over the next 10 years.

The purchase comes as Spokane, Wash.-based Potlatch­Deltic Corp. wraps up a yearslong effort in Minnesota to sell some 300,000 acres of less-strategic company-owned forests that it said could be put to better use.

It means two Minnesota tribes are closer to getting some of their land back. While the forestland is scattered across 14 counties in northern Minnesota, nearly half is within the reservation boundaries of two Ojibwe bands — the Bois Forte Band and the Leech Lake Band — who each plan to acquire the land.

"This is really good news for Minnesota," said Kim Berns-Melhus, state director of the Conservation Fund.

Changing economic conditions have caused industrial forestland across the country to be converted and subdivided over the last 20 years, she said. Through that fragmentation, the country has lost millions of acres of large forests and important wildlife habitat.

"Our goal is to protect 5 million acres of working forest across the country in the coming decade," Berns-Melhus said. "The purchase of the Potlatch forests in Minnesota really accelerates this."

The forested acres are mostly red pine, aspen and spruce, she said. Nearly half are located in the headwaters area of the Mississippi River, home to threatened species such as the northern long-eared bat, red-shouldered hawk and Blanding's turtle.

The Conservation Fund will continue paying property taxes as it works on conveying the land to the other parties.

"Minnesota inherited a land pattern throughout history that is a patchwork quilt," she said. "This project allows us time to build working relationships with partners as we figure out what's the best solution for these lands."

Some of the timberland is close to other public lands. One large parcel, for example, is adjacent to Paul Bunyan State Forest in Hubbard County.

The land will be open to the public for hiking, berry picking, backpacking and cross-country skiing, Berns-Melhus said. Hunting will require permission from the Conservation Fund. The nonprofit is honoring 70 hunting leases on the land that Potlatch had signed.

Bois Forte Chairwoman Cathy Chavers called the sale exciting and deeply meaningful for her tribe, which lives near the Canada border.

Chavers said her tribe is small, with about 3,500 enrolled members, and isn't sure how it will pay for the land. It plans to work with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation in Little Canada on that, she said.

"It's kind of sad how the land was acquired way back when," Chavers said, noting it was often traded away for goods.

The Bois Forte Band's reservation is like many reservations, she said, in having a checkerboard of land within its boundaries owned by various parties, including private individuals who aren't members of the tribe. Much of the Potlatch forest is in the Nett Lake section of the reservation, Chavers said, in St. Louis and Koochiching counties. That's where the tribe does a lot of hunting, berry picking, gathering for traditional medicines and trapping.

"I remember picking pine cones with my mother and my grandmother," she said.

Joseph Fowler, land director for the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe, said the tribe has bought a lot of land from Potlatch directly over the years and was in talks with Potlatch for the forestland that the Conservation Fund ultimately bought. The tribe is working on a long-term plan to acquire it.

"Our land is one of the more precious resources that we have," Fowler said. "We hold it in high regard along with our culture and children and other valuable resources."

PotlatchDeltic now has about 20,000 acres left in Minnesota, said company spokeswoman Anna Torma. Most of that is under contract to be sold in the next two years. The company's main timberlands are in Idaho, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Torma called the sale "a great outcome." "We're very happy that it could end up in conservation," she said.

Potlatch will continue to own and operate its Bemidji sawmill, she said, which produces spruce, pine and fir lumber for home construction.

The Conservation Fund operates in all 50 states and is based out of Arlington, Va. The $48 million for the purchase came from private funds, it said, including the Richard King Mellon Foundation in Pennsylvania, and capital from "green bonds" for conservation work issued by Goldman Sachs.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683