Minnesota landowners hold keys to protect forests, cold water lakes

·6 min read

From a wooded shore, Wabedo Lake stretches out in classic Minnesota North Woods form: a few docks, stands of rippling wild rice, a small fishing boat quietly gliding by.

The Siemering family wanted to guarantee future generations could have the kind of lake experience they have cherished. So instead of selling their 116 acres of lakeshore forest for development, they turned to the Northern Waters Land Trust. The family sold it to the conservation nonprofit, which in turn conveyed it to Cass County, ensuring the forest will never be altered or built on and will be open to the public to use.

The forest is thick with undisturbed birch, aspen, basswood, balsam and spruce.

"Probably the greatest thing now is this place that we have cherished and brought so many memories … this one slice is now being protected," said Cheryl Siemering, 64, of Plymouth. "It just continues to live on then."

The sale is one piece in the puzzle of efforts to save the state's special cold-water lakes by protecting the forest around them. The lakes and their critical fish habitat are at serious risk, under relentless pressure from the spread of row-crop farming farther north, commercial development, landowners clearing lakefront property, nutrient runoff from farm and lawn chemicals, and climate change's rising temperatures.

Most Minnesotans probably don't realize how unique their cold-water lakes are, said Kathy DonCarlos, land conservation lead for the Northern Waters Land Trust. They only exist in the northern tier states, she said. Illinois, for example, doesn't have them.

The Wabedo Lake purchase is particularly exciting, the trust said, because it's a large parcel. Plus, while people are still selling land for conservation, land donations have slowed with the tax code changes under the Trump administration that reduced deductibility for all charitable contributions.

Trust conservation specialist Annie Knight called such land sales a "concrete and permanent" way private landowners can take charge of preserving nature for future generations.

"Restoration costs way more money than simply protecting it in the first place," Knight said.

The focus of the Walker-based Northern Waters Land Trust is preserving forestland around strategic lakes in Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Aitkin counties. Since the 1990s, it has bought or received 1,481 acres. Working with the Minnesota Land Trust, it has arranged conservation easements on an additional 3,197 acres. With such easements, landowners agree not to further develop the land.

Wabedo Lake, in Cass County, is one of 68 cold-water lakes around the state the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has targeted as "refuge lakes" for tullibee, or cisco, a fish whose populations have been crashing in the Midwest. About half the lakes are in Northern Waters Land Trust territory. The trust is now also focusing on protecting land on lakes with broader outstanding biological significance.

Tullibee are small silvery fish that thrive in well-oxygenated cold water. A type of herring, they're a critical forage fish for prized game fish such as walleye and muskie, so densely nutritious that they're called nature's Snickers for fish.

Fish-to-forest tipping point

The DNR relies on a calculated fish-to-forest tipping point — if at least 75% of a lake's watershed is protected with forest cover, the lakes there can sustain themselves — and their cold-water fish. Forests are a perfect water conditioner, a sponge that slows rain, soaks it up, prevents erosion, filters water and cools it.

The Siemerings did not know all this at first, of course. Cheryl Siemering and her brother John, 73, who lives outside Pittsburgh, just knew it was time to let go of the treasured lake home.

The Wabedo Lake property had been in the extended family since the 1940s. Their mother's cousin ran Blakemen's Resort there. Then their parents, Robert and Alice, bought it in the 1970s and changed the name to the Loon's Nest Resort, which they ran for 20 years. They retired there, taking down all but one of the five small cabins. Robert died while fishing on the lake in 2003. Alice died in February at 98.

"It was everything to her," Cheryl Siemering said of the lake. "She loved it so."

But the family had scattered, and the property was becoming too much to manage.

John Siemering said Pat Moran, of Moran Realty in nearby Longville, first told them about the Northern Waters Land Trust's preservation effort in 2017 after seeing the property.

"There were no docks. It was exactly the way it was made by God or whoever," Moran said. "It was a big beautiful chunk on the lake."

Moran said his father worked for years as a DNR forestry supervisor and coached him about seeing the highest and best use for land.

"That rules," Moran said. "I've seen these pieces that I just think: 'You know, I don't need to develop that.' "

They called Cass County Land Commissioner Kirk Titus, who also drove out for a look. He said he saw more than 800 feet of undisturbed shoreline on land abutting 1,800 acres of public forest land the county already maintains.

Titus said it fit perfectly with the county's goal of conserving land to protect wildlife habitat and public access for recreation: hunting, fishing, hiking, berry picking and wildlife viewing. The conservation deal also had strong support from the Wabedo-Little Boy-Cooper-Rice Lakes Association, which put money toward the purchase as did the Hugh C. Becker Foundation.

"I think I'm going to call it Siemering Woods," Titus said.

Cheryl Siemering said that as they learned more about how conserving forest around a lake supports the lake's overall health, "we were [in] hook, line and sinker."

'Thrilled that we did it'

The Northern Waters Land Trust had the 116-acre parcel appraised and bought it for an undisclosed sum with grant money from the sales-tax-based Outdoor Heritage Fund. The fund is one created by the state's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

The Siemerings carved out a small parcel with their mother's house on it for a separate sale. A couple planning to retire there just bought that piece, Cheryl said.

It is their first summer not being at the lake, John said. But they know the conservation sale was the right move — and they said they are grateful their mother lived to see it completed.

About 10 days before she passed, John said, she said out of the blue: " 'You know, John, whatever happens, I'm so happy we did what we did with the property.' "

"She said the same thing to my sister," he said. "She was thrilled that we did it."

"More people should know about this."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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