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Potlatch land deal all but a done deal - finally

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You don’t need to be one of the anglers who frequent the many fishing holes off Green’s Point, or a waterfowl hunter who for years has been drawn to this stretch of the Mississippi River this time of year. Nor must you be a “ricer” in this wild-ricing haven to know the value of this land.

Then again, because of all that, it’s difficult to put a price on this property.

In the world outside this tranquil place, it doesn’t work that way. Price has been a factor and, at times, a stumbling block here. But for advocates of the Mississippi Northwoods Habitat Complex project, a long and difficult journey is nearing its completion and, as a result, this land will be protected for future generations of anglers, hunters and wild-ricers.

The Potlatch Corporation, which owned the 1,988-acre property just north of the Brainerd airport, has accepted an $11 million offer for the land, according to Becca Nash, project manager for The Trust for Public Land, which has spearheaded the project effort along with several partners.

All that’s left now, Nash said, is “to work with (Crow Wing County) to be sure they are in a position to acquire the property by November 30, 2012.”

It will be the culmination of a more than year-long process that, at times, has been an emotional rollercoaster for project advocates. Because funding is through the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Fund, as determined by the Legislature, the project floundered at times as the process played out in St. Paul. Before that, there were presentations to the Lessard Council and, as of late, the appraisal process.

Originally, the project sought $14.5 million to purchase the property from Potlatch to get it into public ownership and protect it from development. In late July, Nash said, the DNR made two appraisals — one came back at $13 million, the other at $11 million; the DNR certified the second appraisal and an $11 million offer was made to Potlatch.

Then came the wait. And, on Sunday, Sept. 16, word of the agreement from Nash in an email to supporters.

“We cannot do our work to conserve land in this way for the public without a willing seller. Potlatch recognized the outstanding natural resource qualities of this property; they have stuck through a long and at times challenging process, and this agreement with them will result in a natural legacy for our state,” Nash said in the email.

The property features more than two miles of pristine, undeveloped shoreline along the Mississippi River and numerous natural resources and related opportunities.

“We are delighted to be so close to having this special property protected for the people of Minnesota,” Nash said.

“We couldn’t be here without leaders at Crow Wing County, the Legislature, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and the project team. Area representatives John Ward, Larry Howes, and Mike LeMieur and Senator Paul Gazelka came through with great bi-partisan support for the effort. Senator Gazelka hosted a tour of the property for a key senate committee. Representative Ward was critical in gaining support in the House, giving a colorful and convincing endorsement on the House floor and working tirelessly within his caucus and ‘across the aisle’ to get funding passed. And, of course, tons of credit goes to the project team.”

Even Gov. Mark Dayton threw his support behind full funding for the project during the legislative session. In letters to lawmakers on the Senate Environment Committee and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Dayton described the potential purchase as a rare opportunity to conserve a large block of land adjacent to existing public lands, as well as possible opportunity for trail development.

“I believe the Mississippi River Northwoods Project offers a tremendous one-time chance to secure this vision,” he said.

He said the project is an example of what voters had in mind when they approved the Legacy Amendment.

Early in the process, a public meeting to weigh interest in the project at Northland Arboretum in Baxter in August 2011 drew 30-plus people, including representatives from a number of interest groups and the project leads — Anglers for Habitat, the Brainerd Chapter of Delta Waterfowl, the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation, the Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association and the Trust for Public Land. Facilitators Nash and Todd Holman of The Nature Conservancy fielded question after question from those with an interest in hunting, fishing, ATVs, snowmobiling, bicycling and cross-country skiing.

“I think it’s a great project and there’s a ton of support,” Nash said at the time.

“The project speaks for itself.”

BRIAN S. PETERSON is a freelance writer based in northern Minnesota.