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BAXTER — Monday’s announcement of the closing of an $11 million deal to conserve nearly 2,000 acres of land along the Mississippi River, was billed as Celebration No. 1.

Conservation advocates said Celebration No. 2 is tentatively planned for next summer in the undeveloped area northeast of Brainerd that will now be preserved for future generations for a variety of outdoor recreational uses.

Proponents of the land deal, which was funded by proceeds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment, which Minnesota voters passed in 2008, praised the partnership of hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts who worked on the project.

Former state Sen. Bob Lessard, who introduced the bill to place the constitutional amendment before the voters, singled out Crow Wing County for its willingness to take the lead and manage the land, which includes 2.7 miles of river shoreline.

David Hartwell, chair of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, said Monday at the Northland Arboretum news conference he’s looking forward to being able to canoe and hike around the wilderness area this summer.

“This is a great project,” Hartwell said. “A lot of partners did a lot of work on this.”

Crow Wing County Commissioner Rosemary Franzen called the land purchase a great achievement and a rare opportunity to preserve pristine, undeveloped land for recreational uses. She thanked Potlatch, the original owners of land. Franzen also commended the “unwavering support of Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, and Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, in the Legislature.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, the chair of a key committee that approved enabling legislation for the sale, said preservation of the natural area was the right thing for Minnesota to do.

“This is a really, really cool piece of property,” he said.

The land is located not far from French Rapids and between the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and the Crow Wing County Landfill.

“I called it a dump when I was trying to get the price down,” McNamara said of the negotiations with Potlatch.

Mississippi River Northwoods will link with adjacent properties to create a nine-mile stretch of protected natural shoreline according to a statement from the Crow Wing County Land Services Department. The area was described as a prime location for visitors to enjoy hunting, fishing, cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing, hiking, snowmobiling and canoeing.

Gary Drotts, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) area wildlife manager, said he was proud of the nonprofit groups, the state of Minnesota and Crow Wing County for a move which will improve the area’s quality of life.

“No one part of us could have done this alone,” Drotts said.

Also speaking at the event was Ward, Jenny Smith of Cycle Path and Paddle of Crosby and Gary Leaf of Sportsmen for Change.

Kirk Titus of Crow Wing County Land Services, speaking after the news conference, said his office will conduct a forest inventory to determine exactly what the county has to work with as a recreational area. The county, he said, already manages more than 103,000 acres of land.

“The real work starts now,” he said as officials balance the interests and needs of different recreational enthusiasts. “That’s the challenge of the job.”

Franzen said she believed the area would attract additional tourists and was big enough to accommodate the different uses.

The Land Services Department’s news release said the northwoods area is home to Blanding’s turtles, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks and other species. The land provides critical habitat along the Mississippi River Flyway, which is used by 60 percent of North America’s migratory birds. A lake-like basin on the property and a designated trout stream, the news release said, are critical fisheries for bass, walleye, muskellunge, panfish, brook trout and brown trout.

The Trust for Public Land and Potlatch had been in long discussions regarding the future of the property, officials said. Other lead partners are Crow Wing County, which own and provide stewardship of the land, the DNR, the Nature Conservancy, Anglers for Habitat, Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association and Delta Waterfowl (Brainerd chapter).

Project team members who were listed by Susan Schmidt of the Trust for Public Land included Marc Bacigalupi, Mike Burton, Drotts, Michael Duval, Craig Engwall, Todd Holman, Greg Kvale, JJ Levenske, Wade Miller, John Schaubach and Titus.

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or He may be followed at

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860