Preserving Land to Protect Water

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Some of the staff behind Northern Waters Land Trust— (l-r) Annie Knight (grants manager/conservation specialist, Linda Barber (office administrator), and Elizabeth Mboutchom (director of development and education)

For as long as I can remember, nature has held a special place in my heart. I have fond memories of our family cabin near Walker. I spent hours exploring the Paul Bunyan State Forest, canoeing across the lake, listening to the loons sing, and enjoying time with family.

As I grew older, I realized the need to protect these places from further human impact. After graduating from the College of Saint Benedict with degrees in environmental studies and psychology, I made it my goal to protect natural places through positive interactions with people. I now live across the lake from our family cabin, with my husband, dog, and cherished cedar trees.

Today I get to protect the waters that I grew up loving. Northern Waters Land Trust (NWLT) is a nonprofit conservation organization in Walker. Our mission is to preserve land in order to protect water. We envision an area that has clean lakes, rivers, wetlands, and forests that support a diversity of fish and wildlife. NWLT’s service area includes Northern Minnesota counties Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, and Hubbard, where there are more than 2,235 lakes and 4.2 million acres of land.

Our two methods of conservation are through conservation easements and fee title acquisitions. A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a land trust that limits future development of their property, yet allows them to use and manage their land within the terms of the agreement. If a landowner would like to sell or donate their land, yet make sure that it remains undeveloped and protected, we purchase the landowner’s property, then convey it to an organization that will manage it long term, such as a local county, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the U.S. Forest Service, and others.

NWLT partners with the Minnesota Land Trust (MLT) to focus efforts on 23 cold water tullibee refuge lakes and their surrounding watersheds. Tullibees (or ciscos) are a small, nutrient-rich, forage fish for game fish, such as walleye, muskie, northern pike, and lake trout. As Pete Jacobson, former DNR Fisheries Researcher, says, tullibee are “scrumptious Snickers bars” for game fish. Tullibees are also the “canary in the coal mine,” otherwise known as an “indicator species” for warming temperatures and climate change. They require cold, well-oxygenated waters in order to survive — a condition most commonly found in deep water lakes with healthy watersheds. If water temperatures rise too high, tullibee populations cannot survive.

A cold water tullibee lake’s ecosystem and water quality have a high probability of being maintained if 75 percent of its watershed is undisturbed.

State reports indicate Northern Minnesota could experience significant water quality and fisheries degradation in the coming decades without direct conservation.

Lakes and watersheds with natural, undisturbed land cover along the shorelines and within their watersheds will have the best chance to sustain high water quality in the face of shoreland development and a changing climate. For these reasons, and many more, the proactive protection of these tullibee lakes is crucial.

NWLT and MLT have experienced great success during this cold water tullibee lake program. Since 2014, we have permanently protected over 3,000 acres of land and have more than 1,000 acres currently en route to protection. We have already surpassed 75 percent protection within two of our previously prioritized watersheds. As conservationists like to say, we are “moving the needle.” With looming climate change and continued human impact, permanent land conservation provides a tangible solution.

As I reflect on the many conversations I have had with landowners, my favorite part is hearing their passion when telling me about their connection with the land. For every Minnesotan who lives on a lake, their lake is by far the best. Similar to my story, they have cherished memories on the water, walks in the woods, and tasty dinners on the porch. This is something we all want our future grandchildren and great-grandchildren to experience.