Crow Wing SWCD purchases forestland to protect habitat and water quality
The Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District purchased land near Ruth Lake in Emily in October using grant funds
EMILY — A land acquisition made possible by a $1.6 million grant will help preserve water quality in a Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District priority watershed that supplies the Twin Cities with a source of drinking water.
The SWCD purchased five parcels totaling 200.52 acres near Ruth Lake in Emily using an Outdoor Heritage Fund grant. The land is surrounded by 105,000 county-owned acres.
The more we can keep forests as forests, the more we’re going to be able to keep this water clear so when it comes down to the Twin Cities, people don’t have to pay as much money to treat it.
The Oct. 27 purchase brings the Crow Wing SWCD two percentage points closer to its goal of keeping 75% of forestland in the Ruth Lake subwatershed forested, with the current total now at 64%.
After the purchase, the SWCD donated the land to the Crow Wing County Land Services Department, which will manage it for timber production and wildlife habitat.
“The more we can keep forests as forests, the more we’re going to be able to keep this water clear so when it comes down to the Twin Cities, people don’t have to pay as much money to treat it," Crow Wing SWCD manager Melissa Barrick, who serves as the project manager, said in a news release.
The Pine River flows to the Mississippi River, a source of drinking water for more than 1 million people in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.
A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study found that protecting 75% of forestland within a lake’s watershed helps to preserve its water quality. When more than 25% of a lake’s watershed is deforested, phosphorus runoff spikes, feeding the algae that turns lakes green.
When the SWCD prioritized 500 lakes in the Pine River Watershed for protection, it ranked Ruth Lake among those most deserving based on water quality, sensitivity to phosphorus, economic significance and probability of attaining the 75% goal.
“The number one goal for the Pine (River Watershed) was to protect habitat, forestland and groundwater,” Barrick said. “And the best way to do that is through either acquisitions or through conservation easements, because we’re basically buying the rights so that land doesn’t get developed.
“It’s a three-for-one: habitat, water protection, forestland,” she said.
By working with landowners to install best management practices, the SWCD also aims to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering the lake by 5%, or roughly 18 pounds a year.
“It’s not too often that you’re going to find a piece of property like this that’s completely forested and surrounded by county land,” Chris Pence, a Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources conservationist, said in the news release. “It’s an island to itself. One of the reasons it’s so important to look at these rural parcels for consolidation is the county is unable (without incurring a high cost) to provide services that people would expect if they would build a house back there.”
The grant also covered a similar land acquisition in Hubbard County and contract, legal and appraisal work related to the purchases. The grant was awarded July 1, 2021, and runs through June 30, 2025.
“Our goal was to acquire 300 acres, which we did surpass,” Barrick said. “And then we had a goal to place 240 acres of high-quality forest, wetlands and shorelines into conservation easements.”
The SWCD’s grant application notes that the Pine River and Leech Lake watersheds provide habitat for wild rice, golden-winged warblers, northern long-eared bats, Blanding’s turtles and more then 100 unique, rare, endangered or threatened species — all of them at risk from development trends.