DNR halts pine to farmland conversion

A DNR proposal to examine deforestation of land into crops in light of 54 irrigation permits filed by R.D. Offutt Co. is raising some eyebrows locally.

Active piling and burning of forest debris just northeast of Badoura Nursery in Badoura Township on Feb. 4. The township is in Hubbard County east of Park Rapids. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources).

A DNR proposal to examine deforestation of land into crops in light of 54 irrigation permits filed by R.D. Offutt Co. is raising some eyebrows locally.

That comes after DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr put a halt to a mass conversion of pine forest into cropland. Potlatch Corp. lost its tax exemption and has clear cut acreage and is offering 27,000 acres for cropland in Hubbard and Beltrami counties.

“The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is undertaking a closer examination of a trend in northwestern Minnesota where pine forests are being cut, cleared and converted to potatoes and other rotational croplands,” said a news release prepared by DNR communications director Chris Niskanen.

“The DNR will look at how a pine-to-potatoes conversion “could potentially pose a threat to water supplies and impact fish and wildlife for years to come,” the release stated. The DNR will prepare a document known as a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet (EAW).

“A North Dakota-based potato processor, R.D. Offutt, has been purchasing and clearing the forest land in four counties: Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena. The DNR estimates that the processor has already purchased about 12,000 acres of pine forests. Some of this land has already been cleared, and the remainder is slated for clearing and conversion to irrigated croplands,” the release said. “The DNR estimates that another 15,000 acres of pine forests have the potential to be sold and converted to crops.


“Altogether, the forest lands that have been cleared, or are at risk of being cleared, cover a total area of about 42 square miles – an area approximately covered by the cities of Bemidji, Brainerd and Detroit Lakes combined,” the report claims. “Experts say the current rate of forest loss in this region has not been seen in recent memory.

“The region’s sandy, permeable soil contributes to the potential impacts from this land conversion. These potential impacts include the risk of crop fertilizers contaminating local water supplies, groundwater overuse, and impacts to fish and wildlife.

“R.D. Offutt is asking the DNR for permits to construct groundwater wells to irrigate new and future croplands,” the release said.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Thursday, “This is not an indictment of the company. It’s really about the groundwater.

“They have done some really amazing reductions in applications, so I applaud the company for that,” Landwehr added. “I commend them for doing the right thing with respect to sustainability.”

“Before deciding whether to grant those well permit requests, the DNR will prepare the discretionary EAW in order to fully understand the potential environmental effects of any appropriation decisions and associated land clearing activities,” the news release said.

“It’s important that the DNR carefully consider the implications that this rapid forest land clearing and conversion will have on water quality, water supply, and related resources in this region and beyond,” s Landwehr said. “People rely on these water sources, and we want to take a hard look at any potential impacts.”

“The EAW could take up to a year to complete,” the news release states. “The potato processor has been informed of the environmental review process, which puts on hold any further land clearing and decisions regarding well permit applications.


“The pine-to-potatoes conversion is occurring in an area known as the Pineland Sands Aquifer that has sandy, permeable soil,” the release says. “The aquifer is directly connected to local lakes, streams and wetlands. The combination of permeable soils and agricultural fertilizers pose a risk of nitrate contamination to groundwater and surface water.

“Experts say nitrate contamination in water is difficult to avoid when growing potatoes in sandy soils and that contamination could impact drinking water resources, fish, and other aquatic species. The cumulative volume of water being sought is also a concern. The DNR must carefully analyze the potential impacts of this water use on the sustainability of both groundwater and connected surface waters.

“These surface water supplies in northwestern Minnesota are the source of drinking water for downstream users as far south as Minneapolis and St. Paul, via the Mississippi River, the release states.

“The DNR is the state agency that approves and regulates permits for agricultural irrigation and other large volume water uses. To date, the DNR has issued 32 irrigation permits to this applicant, associated with about 4,000 acres of land conversion, and the applicant is proposing an additional 54 irrigation permits.

“The forest conversion could also negatively impact local wildlife populations, water runoff and soil erosion. Loss of pineland habitat will impact deer within the state’s highest deer goal population areas and create the potential for increased deer depredation on crops in the area. These pineland forests are, in some cases, home to rare plant and animal species,” the report concludes.

However, the company has cut back use of nitrates every year for nearly a decade, a company spokesman said Thursday.

Landwehr acknowledged that fact.

“It’s highly commendable what they’re doing,” he said.


And R.D. Offutt isn’t the only large farming operation in the area. The Becker and Johanning farms are also quite large, the Offutt official points out.

Most farmers in the region raise soybeans, potatoes and corn, which require lots of water and fertilizer. Potatoes grow particularly well in sandy soil, which is easier to harvest in the fall.

One reason behind the land issue is that Potlatch lost its tax-exempt status, and the company began clear-cutting large areas for sale as farmland, the Offutt official said.

Red beetle bugs are also decimating pine forests, the Offutt official said.

Loggers, too, are cutting pine forests for income.

Landwehr said the agency would give careful consideration to the company’s irrigation requests, but that he informed Offutt officials Thursday that he was considering a moratorium on further well proposals.

This report was supplemented by the DNR news release.

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