CAMP RIPLEY — More than 700 acres of land surrounding Camp Ripley will be protected as part of a project involving several public and private partners.

Announced Wednesday, July 1, a news release described the project as “a large conservation milestone … which will prevent incompatible development and support environmental, educational and recreational opportunities in central Minnesota.

The Conservation Fund helped the city of Baxter and Sylvan Township acquire a total of 718 acres within the Camp Ripley Army Compatible Use Buffer priority area, which is a component of the larger Sentinel Landscape — a roughly 805,000-acre boundary around the installation deemed high priority for protection.

“Camp Ripley is an important economic engine of central Minnesota, and its Sentinel Landscape is critical for providing both ecological conservation and public recreation opportunities,” the release stated. Learn more about Ripley’s Sentinel Landscape at https://bit.ly/2YPsPol.

The forestlands within the Sentinel Landscape not only protect the headwaters and water quality for the Mississippi River, but allow Camp Ripley to complete training with few impediments. In recent years, this land faced high risk of being sold and converted to private development, which impacts its ecological value and hinders the installation’s mission to train soldiers, organizers stated.

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To avoid this outcome, partners united to acquire and protect land in the Sentinel Landscape’s borders. The partners have a near-term goal of purchasing and conserving roughly 1,500 acres within and near the boundary from PotlatchDeltic Corp. across both Cass and Crow Wing counties.

“Our forests, grassland and waterways provide a practical benefit to Camp Ripley and our neighbors,” stated Brig. Gen. Lowell Kruse, Camp Ripley senior commander, in the release. “By helping to hold back encroachment on the boundaries of our training area as well as the recreational surroundings we all enjoy as Minnesotans, we can work to ensure the readiness of our armed forces and the positive quality of everyone's precious free time for years to come.”

With funding provided by the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program and Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the city of Baxter now owns 638 acres, and Sylvan Township owns 80 acres. The lands will remain forested and be accessible to the community.

This acquisition helped establish a corridor of protected land in southwest Baxter, located along the Mississippi River. This area is also vital wildlife habitat for species such as the state-threatened Blanding’s turtle and Minnesota’s highest concentration of red-shouldered hawks. Some land will also be available for limited hunting and fishing. The acquisition will achieve park and trail goals within the city of Baxter’s Comprehensive Plan linking the Baxter park system, schools and the Paul Bunyan State Trail. Roughly 200 acres will be added to the existing Baxter Overlook Park and will also be used as an outdoor forest classroom area for Baxter schools.

“This was a very rare opportunity for the City of Baxter to have such a large block of open space within city limits,” stated Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson. “The land preserved within Baxter includes forested property along the Mississippi River and Pike Creek and connects to Island Lake and to Sylvan Township. We were pleased for the opportunity to partner with Camp Ripley, The Conservation Fund, Brainerd Public Schools, and PotlatchDeltic. It is exciting that this land allows the School District the opportunity to expand their successful school forest program. We are also excited for all of the people that will be able to enjoy this unique amenity within the City of Baxter into the future.”

Kim M. Berns-Melhus, Minnesota state director for The Conservation Fund, said the effort was unlike anything the Minnesota community had tried before. She thanked U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, along with U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, for their support.

“The unique and cooperative way various partners — from PotlatchDeltic to the Department of Defense — came together to achieve a larger mission is truly remarkable,” stated Berns-Melhus. “ … This will certainly serve as a model for future conservation efforts across the state.”

Greg Booth, chair of the Sylvan Township Board, said the addition of open spaces fits well within the township’s comprehensive plan.

“The Township is committed to preserving these important green spaces for the benefit of its residents, wildlife, water quality and native species,” Booth stated. “The acquisition of these parcels also fits well with our partnership with Camp Ripley in creating a buffer zone that is good for the camp, residents, visitors and the environment. … We greatly appreciate the work of The Conservation Fund, which helped make this happen.”

Chris Hanson, Forestview Middle School science teacher, said the Brainerd School District has one of the more utilized school forests in Minnesota.

“Our outdoor classroom is an opportunity that helps make Forestview Middle School and Brainerd ISD 181 a special school system in which to study and learn,” Hanson stated. “Access to this new forested land, wetlands, Pike Creek and the Mississippi River is an exciting opportunity as it provides access to new habitats and ecosystems for students to expand outdoor learning. The proximity of this property to the school forest will also help ensure the plant and animal diversity of natural areas we value so much for recreational, athletic extracurricular, and academic activities.”