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Graphic: Area to be placed under conservation

Minnesota's huge forest conservation deal closes today

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region Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Enterprise
(218) 732-8757 customer support
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Minnesota's single largest land conservation deal ever will be signed and sealed today as the state buys conservation easements on 187,277 acres of forest owned by Finnish paper giant UPM.

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A combination of state money and private conservation funds will buy permanent protection for the land, in various tracts, mostly in Itasca County, along the infant miles of the Mississippi River.

The legally binding agreement will keep the land permanently undeveloped and open to the public, supporters say, walling off huge tracts of land from the rampant development that has spread across Minnesota's lakes and forest region.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and UPM officials will sign the transaction today. The DNR will hold the conservation easements.

Here's a breakdown of the deal:

# Land: 187,277 acres total, a mix of aspen, pine, spruce and hardwood forests. The land includes 280 miles of streams and lakeshore and 60,000 acres of wetlands.

# Cost: $44 million, including $9.75 million in private donations and $34 million from state conservation funds, much of that from the state's new 3/8ths of a percent sales tax dedicated to environmental efforts.

# Bang for the buck: UPM is getting about $235 per acre, permanently selling off the rights to ever divide or develop the land. That compares to the $6,000 per acre the state paid U.S. Steel to purchase the land where the new Lake Vermilion State Park is located.

# Still private: The land remains owned by UPM, which continues to pay property taxes and which can continue to manage and harvest timber on the land, providing trees for local paper and board mills.

# Public access: UPM must keep the land open to public recreation, including hunting, birding, fishing, camping and berry picking. Snowmobiling and ATVs will be allowed on designated trails as they are now.

# Conservation: UPM is required to use sustainable timber management and harvesting techniques, most of which already are in place. The land can never be developed, divided or parceled. UPM can sell the land, but the easements and all requirements shift to the new owner.

# Scale: It's one of the 10 largest conservation easement deals in the nation, according to the Conservation Fund, an international land conservation group that helped broker the deal.

# Benefits: Supporters say the deal will keep huge blocks of private land -- much of it bordering state, federal and county forests -- from being parceled up and sold off for vacation cabins and homes, preserving large tracts of wildlife and bird habitat and protecting undeveloped buffer areas for water quality.

# Support: Most of the state's major conservation and environmental groups, the DNR, local business and development groups, logging and timber industry interests and local government officials.

# Opposition: Almost none, although one state lawmaker, Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, has questioned the deal, saying the relationship between the nonprofit Blandin Foundation, which lobbied for state money for the effort and contributed $7 million for the purchase, is too close to UPM. UPM owns the former Blandin Co. paper mill in Grand Rapids, in addition to the former Blandin forestland. But the Blandin Foundation had no formal relationship with the paper company that once shared the same name, and has none with the Finnish paper company.

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