A carpenter wouldn't build a house without a blueprint. A traveler wouldn't proceed without a map. Yet some communities grow without a plan for where that growth should and shouldn't occur.
A consortium of 12 public and private groups doesn't want that to happen in Crow Wing County. The Brainerd Lakes Area Conservation Collaborative has published an inventory it hopes will provide guidelines for future planners and developers. Created by a graduate student at the University of Minnesota with input from BLACC members, the inventory has been endorsed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. A similar inventory might be created for Itasca County.
The 74-page inventory has 41 maps depicting land use and cover types, public and private ownerships, forest types, lake types, lands susceptible to erosion, lands that should be conserved, lands that could be developed, potential priority conservation areas and open space networks. By pinpointing the area's natural and man-made features it's hoped the inventory will help people make wise decisions regarding land and water usage.
"It's meant to guide conversation, not to be a stone tablet from the mountain," said Don Hickman, an environmental specialist with the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. "We want to provoke people into asking what's worth saving, what should be developed and how we should accommodate the growth that's coming."
Said Phil Hunsicker, program director at 1,000 Friends of Minnesota: "This inventory isn't just about what's best for wildlife. It's also about what's best for maintaining healty, vibrant human communities, clean groundwater and recreational opportunities for all."
Crow Wing County's population is predicted to grow by more than 30 percent over the next 30 years, pushing past 100,000. Ironically, many people are moving here to get away from the city. If the area's remaining rural character is ruined it will hinder growth and drive current residents away, Hickman said.
The inventory was developed using guidelines from The Nature Conservancy with input from Crow Wing County Planning and Zoning and BLACC members.
"The timing couldn't have been better," Hunsicker said. "Crow Wing County was revising its comprehensive plan and we thought we could have some input into that. Once they get to ordinance revisions we hope to make some comments about those."
The study region covers 2,100 square miles and includes all of the watersheds that drain the county. Three main reasons not to develop a particular area, according to the inventory, are because of its wildlife habitat, recreation potential or because it serves as a groundwater recharge area.
"Originally, The Nature Conservancy said Brainerd was a lost cause, that there was nothing of high biological value here," Hickman said. "But upon a second look they realized there's a shockingly large amount of high value natural habitat still left in the county, particularly around Pillsbury State Forest. The other pocket of enormous attraction are the highlands above Mille Lacs."
The Blanding's turtle and red-shouldered hawk are identified as "indicator species," as their presence indicates an area that has unique and intact habitat.
"Start talking about turtle habitat," Hunsicker said, "and most folks' eyes glaze over. But tell them that our county's drinking water is 100 percent dependent on groundwater supplies, that high-value aquifers are found in good turtle habitat, that if you protect one you protect the other, and now they're interested."
The red-shouldered hawk is an indicator species due to its preference for old-growth forests, few of which remain in the county.
Using the same system as the DNR, the inventory classifies the region's lakes into three types: "active use," "wildlife/natural," and "opportunity." Active use lakes have significant development and public access. Opportunity lakes have less development and could withstand more. Wildlife lakes have very little or no development and should remain that way. There also are "benchmark lakes," representing "a unique lake of a particular type." Among them are Stewart, Butterfield, the Whitefish chain, Upper Cullen, Edward, Mollie, Lower Dean, Clearwater, Bay, Crooked, Portage, Camp, Barbour, Smith and Mille Lacs.
A potential conflict is found on page 57, where it states: "The southern portion of the study region appears to be more open to development because of its low conservation priority level. But the southern portion is also home to most of the remaining agricultural lands in the region, which can be important to preserving open space and rural character."
This predicament isn't unique to Crow Wing County. Throughout the nation agricutural lands are being converted to home sites because farmers are selling off their lands to build nest eggs for retirement. They're finding willing buyers, too, because agricultural land is much cheaper to develop than lakeshore and similar types of property. Hunsicker predicts that one day most agricultural lands will be developed.
"We need to come up designs," he said, "that achieve development objectives, but also maintain open space and rural character. That eliminates typical suburban-style subdivisions, but it opens the door to cluster developments and other conservation designs. We need to make these the preferred designs if agricultural lands are to be developed."
As both Hickman and Hunsicker point out, the study is meant to be normative and not prescriptive.
Hickman: "Too often the conservation community is seen as being negative and saying, 'You must conserve this' or 'You can't develop there.' But we're not anti-growth. We're for planned growth."
Conservationists must establish better alliances with hunting and fishing organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited and Muskies Inc., Hickman said.
"The conservation community has done a miserable job of linking with the hook and bullet clubs. Ninety percent of our interests are in common. We need to find the common ground rather than dwell on the limited areas where we differ.
"I don't know of any constituency more generous than sportsman's groups. They buy licenses and stamps, support their clubs, put their money where their mouths are. They realize that sustainable habitat is the key to their goals."
A provision in the current proposed federal budget has $5 million earmarked for Crow Wing County for habitat and open space acquisition.
"How can we stretch that even farther?" Hickman asks. "Who has additional money so we can get the best bang for the conservation and recreation dollar?"
A tangible example of how natural resources can be protected is the Brainerd Lakes Forest Legacy Program, which is attempting to secure buffer zones around Pillsbury State Forest and Crow Wing State Park. The Trust For Public Land has received $2 million in federal dollars for the project and now awaits $660,000 to $1 million in state matching funds. Passage of the current bonding bill in the Legislature would make it happen.
Hickman and Hunsicker said they will meet with any interested person or group and provide poster-size copies of the study maps. Hickman can be reached at (320) 631-2043 and Hunsicker at (218) 824-5095.
To view the inventory, log onto the Crow Wing County Web site at www.co.crow-wing.mn.us.
BLACC members include 1,000 Friends of Minnesota, The Nature Conservancy, Crow Wing County's planning and parks departments, Initiative Foundation, Bremer Bank, Minnesota Land Trust, Minnesota Lakes Association, Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Crow Wing County Soil and Water Conservation District and Trust For Public Land.
VINCE MEYER can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 855-5862.
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