That is the question at the middle of a decision announced today by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to conduct a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) on a part of Northwest Minnesota that has seen a rapid increase in conversion of forestland to farmland in recent months.
In addition to protecting the forests, the EAW will also serve to ensure that any future development in the region is done in a way that will ensure that the region’s water supply remains safe for consumption, for the regions plants and animals and for recreational uses. Given the sandy nature of the soils found in these forest lands, it is believed that the entire Pineland Sands Aquifer could be extra susceptible to nitrate pollution from agricultural fertilizers, which could impact drinking water as far south at the Twin Cities. Additionally, the forests are the home to several rare plant and animal species, including the Blandings Turtle, which is a threatened species.
R.D. Offutt, a North Dakota-based potato processor, has been purchasing and clearing forestland in Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena Counties. The company is the nation’s largest potato grower, and its customers include several national fast food chains.
Potlatch, a national lumber and paper company, has long owned a large portfolio of forestlands around northern Minnesota. The company is currently seeking to divest itself of some of these holdings. Currently Potlatch has 177 forested parcels ranging in size from a few acres to a few hundred acres listed for sale on its website. With agricultural land for sale being scarce and highly priced, there are economic pressures to convert forest land.
Offutt has already purchased 12,000 acres of pine forest, and they are believed to be eyeing another 17,000 acres in the region. Today’s decision does nothing retroactively on the 33 permits the company has already been granted, but it temporarily stop processing of the 21 permit applications that are currently awaiting DNR approval. It is estimated that the EAW will take somewhere between nine and twelve months to complete.
“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,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a press conference announcing the planned EAW. “People rely on these water sources, and we want to take a hard look at any potential impacts.”
Minnesotans should applaud the DNR for taking this important step. Getting the facts now is important. It is a much better option than those that would be available after such important drinking water sources are lost.