In the Littlefork River’s headwaters region, a three-county project now protects small tracts of privately owned forestland vital to water quality, wildlife habitat and forest health.

The Koochiching Soil & Water Conservation District coordinates the Littlefork Headwaters Non-industrial Private Forestland, or NIPF, project and serves as its fiscal agent. By late summer when the second of two U.S. Forest Service grants wrapped up, 40 landowners had acquired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources-approved management plans for 6,250 acres.

Those tracts were like islands in an otherwise intensively managed forest, scattered throughout the 1 million-acre headwaters region that spans parts of Koochiching, Itasca and St. Louis counties.

“The concern was that you didn’t have continuous management,” said Koochiching SWCD Administrator Pam Tomevi. “So you’ve got these pockets where maybe forest stands and types are similar. But when you have a break in how they’re managed, then it’s not always the best for the (resource).”

Fragmentation increases the threat of development or conversion to cropland. Unmanaged forests pose risks, too. Open areas can be susceptible to invasive plant species. Overly mature stands can fall prey to forest pests. When timber harvest occurs on private lands, a lack of best management practices can lead to soil erosion — especially in riparian areas.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2010 deemed stretches of the Littlefork River impaired for turbidity.

Work on the first NIPF project started in 2011 with a $45,000 federal grant and a $37,000 match. The MPCA’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy, or WRAPS, prompted Koochiching SWCD in 2016 to expand its second phase — funded by a $40,000 federal grant and a match exceeding $106,000 — to focus on riparian areas.

Thomas Wyrobek’s land qualified.

For years, Wyrobek had hunted deer here with friends. He still fills the freezer with venison. But in summer 2018 he was mulling forestry management plans for his 175-acre property. He might stabilize eroding stretches of his 1,350-foot-long riverfront. He might plant hazelnuts. Or pollinator habitat.

Wyrobek planned to do much of the work himself. He expected to have more free time after he transferred ownership of his nanotech company. He discussed possibilities during an August 2018 visit with James Aasen, Koochiching SWCD forest resource specialist.

“The way I’m going to use it is to commit to improving it,” Wyrobek said of the land he’d enrolled.

Aasen’s role in the NIPF project included contacting the owners of prioritized parcels to explain the details.

“The stewardship efforts with the DNR are the perfect way to connect with those landowners and get them engaged,” Aasen said of the DNR’s Private Forest Management program. “Throughout northern Minnesota, you’re seeing land-use priorities changing. There’s a lot of fallow fields … that were farmed, and now there’s invasive weeds that have taken over. Those could be replanted and become productive again.”

Those who signed on were reimbursed for half the cost of hiring a private forester to develop a long-term management plan. Foresters met with landowners, walked their land and considered their goals —which ranged from preserving white pines to attracting songbirds.

Implementation was optional.

Those who registered their forest stewardship plans with the DNR and followed suggestions could receive tax breaks through programs including the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act.

“You’re a landowner and you’re not really thinking about your property 300 miles away. But now you might,” Tomevi said.

Wyrobek elaborated on his reasons for enrolling:

“Trying to do a good job at understanding what a steward of the land is. Because I’m blessed to own it, and possession’s obliged. That’s my mother’s phrase, and I believe that. If you’re going to have it, if you don’t take it seriously, you’re going to lose (everything) anyway.”

Losing contiguous tracts of forestland also would affect wildlife — including wolves, moose, bobcats, bears and fishers, which require large tracts of uninterrupted habitat. The Littlefork River itself is known for sturgeon, muskies, walleye, small-mouth bass and northerns.

“It’s one of the wildest rivers outside of the Boundary Waters. There’s huge stretches that are undeveloped,” Aasen said.

Government agencies manage the county, state and federal forests that comprise 52 percent of the watershed. Companies manage industrial forests for sustainable timber production. Private property owners — many of them absentee landowners who only hunt here — may lack forestry knowledge.

Koochiching SWCD increased its outreach efforts when it leveraged $30,000 — $10,000 a year for three years — in Clean Water Fund local capacity dollars from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to hire Aasen in 2016 and to make a temporary water resources specialist position full time.

The Littlefork Headwaters Non-industrial Private Forestland project exceeded its acreage enrollment goals and its matching contributions.

The two-phase project aimed for 5,000 acres. It enrolled 6,250. It budgeted $60,000 to match the Phase II grant, but produced nearly $106,370 in cash and in-kind contributions.

The Koochiching SWCD’s efforts to manage sustainable, healthy forests continue through its involvement in the county water plan, adopted in 2018.

“As we work with the county in partnership to implement the plan, it makes perfect sense that we work with private landowners. In a county that’s as forested as Kooch, you have DNR working on state land. You’ve got county working on county land. Federal lands take care of their own,” Tomevi said.

“Who does a private landowner turn to? That’s the niche that is the soil and water. So when we talk about resources, we don’t just stop at soil and water. We think about a renewable resource that impacts both of those, and that is forestry.”

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ mission is to improve and protect Minnesota’s water and soil resources by working in partnership with local organizations and private landowners.

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