Sprawl of the Wild Part II: Northwoods for sale

For anyone dismayed by the real estate bonanza that has so radically transformed Minnesota's north woods over the past decade, one question has long loomed at the forefront: When will it ever stop? Answer: Barring nuclear war or economic catastrophe, no time soon.

At least, that seems to be a reasonable inference from this week's little-noted announcement that the Potlatch Corporation plans to sell some 120,000 acres of its holdings in northern Minnesota. The reason: The land, much of which has been traditionally open to the public for purposes of hiking and hunting, is simply more valuable for development than for timber production.

If all proceeds as planned, the sale will amount to one of the largest real estate transactions in recent Minnesota history--surpassed in scale only by the 1999 sale of 310,000 acres of woodland by another forest products company, Boise Cascade. That land was bought by Forest Capital Partners, an investment company that is expected to parcel much of the property off for subdivision.

Tom Landweher, assistant state director at the Nature Conservancy, says he was not surprised that Potlatch executives decided to unload some of the company's land holdings. The size of the prospective sale is another matter. "It's a big chunk of land," Landwehr notes. "There are roughly a million acres of forest land owned by industrial companies like Potlatch [in Minnesota], so this represents about 10 percent of that."

While Potlatch has yet to identify the parcels it intends to sell, Landwehr expects that many of the plots will be those that are most closely intermingled with existing public lands. Such proximity raises the value of the land--who wouldn't want their ten-acres adjacent to a state forest? The unfortunate corrolary, of course, is that development in the middle of a public lands generally serves to degrade the qualities of those places.

Landwehr doubts that the state or non-profit like the Nature Conservancy will be in a position to step in and buy much of the Potlatch land. "Some of that land will be $2,000 an acre or more. You're talking tens of millions of dollars," he says. Additionally, he notes, a lot of local units of government in northern Minnesota would resist any such efforts because they want to kept as much land as possible on the tax rolls.

"It used to be the only type of land people bought in northern Minnesota was waterfront," Landwehr observes. "Now people are satisfied 10 acres in the middle of nowhere. It's one of the big cultural changes in the last 15 years. People no longer require water."