February 15, 2016|By Steve Hobbs


So, birdwatchers are strange. I mean that with all due respect and tremendous affection, but they are. They go to extraordinary lengths and considerable expense for a fleeting glimpse of some esoteric bird. Their enthusiasm is remarkable, their optimism unassailable and I deeply enjoy being in their company.

If you are a birder, there is a place in the remote forests of northern Minnesota that you have undoubtedly heard of: Sax-Zim Bog (“Sax” and “Zim” are the two very small villages within the bog). Few others know of this place, unless you remember its mention in the 2013 major motion picture about obsessed birdwatchers titled The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

Sax-Zim Bog looks like much of northern Minnesota, with huge expanses of spruce trees interrupted by open tamarack bogs. It’s enormous. As far as the eye can see in any direction are trees, wetlands, trees, and more wetlands. 

Sax-ZimWildlife Minnesota SparkyStensaas 018Huge expanses of spruce trees and open tamarack bogs fill the enormous Sax-Zim Bog. Photo by Sparky Stensaas.

But the seeming sameness of Sax-Zim Bog with its surroundings is an illusion. For reasons that birds know and scientists can only speculate, every winter Sax-Zim Bog becomes the southernmost haven for boreal bird species from Canada, most notably large owls. Snowy Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and the incredible Great Gray Owls congregate in the bogs of Sax-Zim every winter, drawing thousands of birdwatchers from all over the world to see these birds despite the bitter cold. 

Sax-ZimWildlife Minnesota SparkyStensaas 006A Great Gray Owl glides silently while hunting in the Sax-Zim Bog. Photo by Sparky Stensaas.

Sax-ZimWildlife Minnesota SparkyStensaas 019Intrepid birdwatchers flock to Sax-Zim Bog to view more than 240 bird species that take refuge here. The 9th Annual Sax Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival was held February 12-14, 2016. Photo by Sparky Stensaas.

Yet, for all its austere beauty and its attraction to so many birds and birders, Sax-Zim Bog’s vast ecological integrity and vitality was seriously threatened by the system of drainage ditches that had been constructed over the decades in futile efforts to drain the bog for agricultural pursuits.

To protect this amazing and unique region, The Conservation Fund and our partners had to address and overcome historical, cultural and regulatory challenges.

In ambitious efforts to make the land more productive, early Minnesota settlers shaped the land through extensive logging operations and attempts to mine and drain the peat. Those ditches have been pumping water out of Sax-Zim Bog for decades, slowly bleeding the bog of the water that maintains the peatlands and its associated habitat. Once the peat dries up, it is no longer viable for the spruce and tamarack trees that are essential for the birds, as well as the moose that find Sax-Zim Bog as one of their last refuges in northern Minnesota.  

Sax-ZimWildlife Minnesota SparkyStensaas 013The Sax-Zim Bog is one of the last refuges for moose in northern Minnesota. Photo by Sparky Stensaas.

In response to this damage, Minnesota’s land and water conservation agencies had identified Sax-Zim Bog as a potential site for what is known as a “wetland mitigation bank.” These banks offer credits for purchase by entities—typically developers who are impacting other wetlands by their activities—to mitigate their damage. Regulatory agencies determine how many acres of restored wetlands can suffice as mitigation for their projects’ environmental damage. Sax-Zim Bog, with more than 40,000 acres of the most severely impacted peatlands in Minnesota, was a real prize to target for restoration. Wonderful. However, no one had a clue nor had even attempted peatland restoration on this scale.

A particularly complicated challenge was working within the peculiar system of land ownership in northern Minnesota, where most of the land is owned by 3 entities: the state’s School Trust, the state of Minnesota, and forest product companies. The School Trust in Minnesota owns more than 2.2 million acres, and this land is held to generate revenue for Minnesota schools. Northern Minnesota also has an enormous amount of tax-forfeited lands that have reverted to state ownership after property owners failed to pay their property taxes. The state holds these lands in trust for the county in which the land parcels reside. The counties are then expected to manage these lands, with the revenue going back to the respective county. St. Louis County—where Sax-Zim is located—has more than 900,000 acres of tax-forfeit lands alone. That’s a land area nearly 1.5 times the size of Rhode Island. Finally, forest product companies own many parcels and the largest one is seeking to sell much of its scattered holdings. The result? These three ownerships constitute a jumble of parcels that are randomly distributed and, for the most part, don’t serve the respective goals of any of the three.

Could a sensible and holistic land use plan for this ecological expanse be found despite the fragmentation of the land? Could the deep scars that still checkerboard the Sax-Zim Bog landscape ever begin to heal?  The Conservation Fund and its partners devised a plan to do just that…

Check back on Thursday for details on the Fund’s success in facilitating the largest land exchange in Minnesota history!