Face Of This Place

Steve Hobbs, Sax-Zim Bog

What do you love about Minnesota?

For me, it starts with the water; we really are the state with 10,000 lakes. I love fishing and being out on the water and just being outdoors. Also in Minnesota there is such a great diversity of wonderful urban areas and wonderful natural areas that are integrated with each other. You can get away from it all in a place like the Boundary Waters; really get away from it all! And then you can be in a great urban area like the Twin Cities. Minnesota is just a great spot.

How did our work at Sax Zim Bog come about?

It started when the Department of Natural Resources came to us about a property they had been pursuing for over a decade in Sax-Zim Bog that was privately owned and they had difficulty negotiating a deal with the landowner. They asked us to help out. We were able to negotiate a purchase of that land, about 3,600 acres, in Sax Zim Bog. At the same time, it was just serendipity really, Ecosystem Investment Partners (EIP), was looking for a large wetland restoration project to do in Minnesota. So we met officials with St. Louis County, where Sax-Zim Bog is located, and talked about doing a large-scale project. They, for some time, had been looking for a way to improve their land portfolio for the county. They owned a lot of land at Sax-Zim Bog that while ecologically important, didn’t do a lot for the county to generate revenue. They had long been trying to figure out a way to acquire the land that the Potlatch Corporation owned that did have potential for generating revenue for the county. So with those players in place and those issues in mind, and I really credit St. Louis County for coming up with the idea, we set out to do a large land exchange that essentially would move the pieces around to get the County and the School Trust the former Potlatch lands.

Can you explain the issues with the School Trust Lands?

The issue of School Trust Lands and Tax Forfeit Lands (which are just properties that people have stopped paying taxes on and the ownership reverts back to the state) have been one of the central issues in Northern Minnesota for decades. School Trust Lands, over 2 million acres that are held in trust for the benefit of the school districts in Minnesota, are managed with the sole task is to generate revenue for the state’s school districts. Often, these Trust lands are ecologically valuable, but the state is pressured to do everything possible to generate revenue from these lands through mining or intense timber management. That creates a sizable threat and a conflict for state natural resource management. At the same time, the counties, including St. Louis County, the largest county in the nation by area east of the Mississippi, have a lot of land that they’ve inherited over the years to manage where people have stopped paying their taxes. A lot of this land is largely wetland. It is a financial burden that represents a net loss of revenue for the county..This mix of School Trust and tax-forfeit lands was most of the ownership at Sax-Zim Bog. 

Sax-Zim Bog is one of the great birding sites in North America; it’s an international destination for birders to come to look at boreal bird species. But it’s a lot of wetlands that have been highly disturbed. It doesn’t do a lot for the School Trust or the County to own these properties. The problem has been that you can’t just acquire the School Trust lands directly because of Minnesota’s state law that prohibits it. The only way they can get rid of those properties is through an exchange or to put them up for auction. The same is true for the state tax-forfeit lands that the county manages. That’s where the fun starts. In order for us to protect Sax-Zim Bog, we needed to acquire land from the Potlatch Corporation, that they are willing to sell and the County or the School Trust wanted to own, that was of exactly the same financial value as the land that EIP needed for their wetland mitigation bank at Sax-Zim Bog. No one had ever done an exchange of this size and complexity in Minnesota before so it was a brave new world for all of us. The capital to drive this deal came from EIP because they would do the wetland restoration and then create what they hope will be the largest wetland mitigation bank in the United States. 

What makes Northern Minnesota and the area around Sax-Zim Bog so special?

It’s vastness; it’s a huge area that is very sparsely populated, lots of wetlands that are largely inaccessible. Sax-Zim Bog is one of the few places in Minnesota where the moose population is actually on the rise, in most other places, it’s on the decline. It really is one of the ‘time has stood still’ landscapes in many respects. But it’s also a landscape that in the 1920s and 30s there were many attempts to alter the hydrology, it’s huge peatlands, to try to turn these lands into productive agriculture lands and those attempts failed because it is really impossible to do that from a drainage standpoint. But it left a big scar on the landscape. And so while it’s an important site and it’s working well for the moose, and the wolves, and the birds, there are still a lot of degraded wetlands. That’s why it’s exciting to do a project that is going to financially benefit the school trust, financially benefit St. Louis County, and from a conservation standpoint, do a great job to restore one of the largest peatlands in the nation.

As far as we can tell this is one of the largest peatland restoration projects anyone has ever attempted. There are a lot of firsts here! It’s exciting because if we can do it here, there is potential to do it throughout Northern Minnesota. We’re not done. What we’ve done at Sax-Zim Bog is demonstrate a mechanism to protect even more of the sensitive ecological areas in Northern Minnesota, lands that are held by the school trust, and do more of these kinds of exchanges.

What do you envision these restoration efforts will accomplish if we can take them to scale?

Again, the biggest issue in Northern Minnesota for conservationists, for the forest product industry, for the counties, has been this very fractured land ownership that is scattered in checkerboard fashion all over the place. There are a lot of lands that people have but would prefer not to own. If you look at a map of Northern Minnesota where there are forest products corporations that own land but are not really in the business of forestry anymore but in the business of selling their lands. It’s an on-going issue in Northern Minnesota because if they were to sell their land to different owners, the landscape would become even more fractured than it is right now.

So there is an opportunity right now where everything is lined up and the desire from various players to do these large land exchanges to reconfigure the landscape in Northern Minnesota in a way that makes sense in terms of conservation, in terms of being able to mange forests in Northern Minnesota in a more responsible way. It gives us more latitude to manage these sites if we had large, contiguous forest instead of a fractured landscape. That’s what I see us doing more in the future, more exchanges like this. Doing more work with the counties to figure out what ownership patterns they want to see, what makes sense in their long-term management of their communities. What makes sense for their local economy. We want to work with these communities to help them get where they want to be. It was very rewarding working with St. Louis County. When we first showed up they were very wary of our ability to accomplish the deal. At the closing one county official said, “I never thought you’d pull this off. But I’m very happy that you did.”

Something else worth emphasizing is that nearly 33,000 acres will be protected without a single penny of public money being spent. The ecologically sensitive land will be restored and forever preserved while the land more suitable for economic development will now be configured to allow for sustainable timber management. Everybody wins. Including the birds.

Learn More

The Conservation Fund's 30th Anniversary
Sax-Zim Bog
More Face Of This Place