More than 2,000 acres of land and six wilderness lakes deep in the heart of Superior National Forest will soon be forever protected.
Mike Freed, a retired forestry professor, sold the land this week to the Nature Conservancy, which plans to keep it wild as a corridor and refuge for animals, trees and other wildlife. The land — one of the few major pockets of privately owned land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — offers hundreds of acres of untouched bogs and fens, old-growth pines and miles of trout streams.
“On the shorelines you can still see the rare bog plants and golden tamarack trees with that quiet, muted golden-orange of the larch needles in the fall,” Freed said. “It’s beautiful.”
Freed, who spent his career teaching forestry at Oregon State University, the University of Arkansas and George Mason University, bought the land in the 1990s to save it from development. He grew up in Minnesota and spent months hiking the Appalachian Trail after he retired. At the northern end of the trail in Maine, he was struck by a dedication plaque, which read that while monuments decay and buildings crumble, that mountain would forever be a gift to the people of Maine.
“The heart and soul of Minnesota isn’t a mountain, it’s the wild and quiet lakes of the northern forest,” Freed said. “These lakes will forever remain a gift to the people of Minnesota.”
The Nature Conservancy particularly wanted the land because it is surrounded by the large swaths of protected woods of the Superior National Forest.
It ensures that the forest won’t fragment or be divided up in a way that would cut off moose, wolves or any other animals from needed habitat, said Meredith Cornett, director of conservation science for the Nature Conservancy.
“When we think about how much species move, we really need to make sure these connectors are in place so that movement is even possible; otherwise we risk losing some of them,” Cornett said.
As part of the Superior National Forest, the new conservation land may also prove to be one of the most resilient patches of natural areas left in the state as the climate continues to change, according to a new mapping tool the Nature Conservancy released this week. The map rates exactly where ecologists believe biodiversity and water quality will remain the strongest across the continental United States as temperatures rise and storms become more intense.
Northern Minnesota’s national forest has such a wide variety of hills, cliffs, wetlands and uninterrupted woods that it will likely offer a refuge to a number of different species of animals and trees as they creep farther north to escape rising temperatures, Cornett said.
“It may not be the same species living in these areas 10 or 20 years from now, but because this land has such important qualities and soils, it may be a home to a whole suite of species as they move,” she said.
The U.S. Forest Service and other state and federal agencies are using the mapping tool to help prioritize restoration efforts, as a kind of triage of where certain trees or plants can be saved and where the most important corridors to protect are.
The map has already helped the Forest Service find an area in Superior National Forest that may become a refuge for boreal forest species, which are expected to die off from some of their historic range as temperatures rise, said Katie Frerker, ecologist for the Forest Service.
In areas considered less resilient, the Forest Service might target certain trees for timber harvest and plant a new mix of species better suited to survive, she said.
“It really helps us to be more strategic on the landscape,” Frerker said.
The land, which is divided into dozens of parcels about 15 miles west of Tofte, will be open to the public for hiking and fishing. Some off-road trails already run through it that will remain open, said Chris Anderson, Nature Conservancy spokesman.
The goal is for hikers inside the National Forest not to know when the public land ends and the conservancy’s new land begins, he said.