February 18, 2016|By Steve Hobbs| Wildlife


In June 2012, The Conservation Fund teamed up with Ecosystem Investment Partners (EIP), a private, for-profit company that specializes in large mitigation projects. They had read the Minnesota study targeting Sax-Zim Bog as a potential wetland mitigation site and wondered about our knowledge of the area. As it so happens, the Fund had just begun working on acquiring approximately 3,000 acres within Sax-Zim Bog for ultimate ownership as a state wildlife management area. We met with St. Louis County commissioner Bob Krepps, who patiently explained that our little 3,000-acre acquisition was thinking far too small. He rolled out a map and showed us that the landownership within Sax-Zim Bog was largely comprised of tax-forfeit land and School Trust land—great for birds, but lousy for providing revenue for the School Trust and the County.

SaxZim Blog 2 2Trees and wetlands predominate the Sax-Zim landscape. Photo by Sparky Stensaas.

But Mr. Krepps and the St. Louis County officials saw the opportunity. They just needed someone to help them play the giant game of Tetris necessary to rearrange the land parcels into a land use pattern that made sense.

The solution was simple in concept, but a challenge to implement. The School Trust and county cannot sell their land directly to a prospective buyer. If EIP wanted to acquire the state lands within Sax-Zim Bog, they would need to acquire land of equal value and exchange it. The county and the School Trust sought for some time lands held by the Potlatch Corporation, a forest products corporation and one of the largest landowners in Minnesota.

The Conservation Fund was asked to put all the pieces of this land exchange together, which included the following actions:
  • Buy land and mineral rights from individuals that heretofore have been very reluctant to sell anything
  • Buy scattered lands in one of the largest transactions ever completed in Minnesota
  • Purchase exactly the right amount of private land that would equal the financial value of the public land to be exchanged
  • Obtain approval of the Minnesota legislature and unanimous approval of the Minnesota Governor, Attorney General, and State Auditor

Unfazed, the Fund and its partners forged ahead and completed the project in January 2015. This project required an enormous amount of cooperation among the partners. The Fund, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Potlatch Corporation, the School Trust, St. Louis County and EIP all had to agree not only on exactly what land was to be acquired, but what land was to be released. Each party had unique goals and responsibilities (that often conflicted with another’s), but all parties were united in their determination to make the project work. If any one partner had defected, the project would not have succeeded. 

SaxZim Blog 2 3The Sax-Zim Bog project succeeded in consolidating ownership of adjoining land parcels through a complex series of transactions. To get a sense of scale, if you had to mow 24,000 acres shown here at Sax-Zim Bog with a push mower, it would take you 4.2 years of non-stop (24 hours/day) mowing!

I am also happy to say that since January 2015 many of the ditches have been plugged and the hydrology restored so that the healing of the peatlands can begin. This is one of, if not the largest peatland restoration attempted in the nation and it is going extremely well thanks to the expertise of EIP, its engineering firm SEH, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, St. Louis County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

All in all, the Sax-Zim Bog project protects more than 30,000 acres of forestland and America’s premier boreal birding site. It gives school districts throughout Minnesota more money at a time when budgets are tight. The project allows the School Trust and St. Louis County to manage forests in a sustainable way that provides jobs in a region hard hit by the Great Recession and continuing sluggishness in the world economy. The creation of the Sax-Zim Bog wetland mitigation bank gives regulators better options to mitigate impacts to our wetlands. Most amazing is that this was all done without spending a dollar of public money on the acquisition of the land or its restoration. 

SaxZim Blog 2Northern hawk owls are an exciting sight for birders at Sax-Zim Bog. Photo by Sparky Stensaas.

Perhaps the greater accomplishment is that we now have a template for the beneficial realignment of landownership patterns in northern Minnesota. We now have a proven mechanism to defragment the landscape and ensure that sensible land ownership allows for enhanced natural resource management. We continue to move forward with all of our partners to make these lands work for everyone.

Thanks to the efforts of so many, the birds and the bird lovers will always have a place to meet at Sax-Zim Bog.