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Potlatch selling up to 120,000 Minnesota acres

Potlatch officials this year will begin selling up to 120,000 acres of undeveloped forest land in Minnesota to capture its skyrocketing value for recreation and development.

Company officials confirmed this week that the northern Minnesota land is part of the company's plan to sell about 20 percent of its 1.5 million acres in the U.S. The sales include 120,000 acres of Potlatch's 310,000 acres in Minnesota, 120,000 acres in Idaho and 60,000 acres in Arkansas.

Potlatch officials say the lands targeted for sale are higher valued properties worth more for recreation and development than for timber management and logging. The company says it will use tax incentives and proceeds from the sales to buy lower valued, lower cost forest land for traditional forestry. In fact, the company last month acquired 76,000 acres of timberland in Northeastern Wisconsin.

"At then end of the day, we want to own more forest land than we did before we started,'' said Mark Benson, vice president of public affairs for the Spokane, Wash., -based Potlatch.

Benson said the lands targeted for sale are simply too valuable in today's real estate market to keep on the company's ledger for timber harvest twice every century.

But the sale of more Minnesota forest lands has conservation groups and state resource officials worried. State, federal and private groups have been furiously working for more than two years to stem the tide of forest land being sold and broken up for cabins and retirement homes in Minnesota.

Land owned by Potlatch and other large, forest products companies has been a critical element for recreation, timber harvest and northern ecosystems. But as land values increase, companies face pressure from Wall Street to capture that value.

The trend has closed-off thousands of acres of land previously open to the public for hunting and other recreation. And the forest land rush has taken thousands of acres out of timber management for the state's forest products industry, often due to parcel sizes that are impractical to log or where owners chose to let trees grow old.

Those land sales and ensuing development also interrupt large tracts of contiguous forest considered important for many forest animals like boreal owls, songbirds, moose, wolves and lynx.

The state, federal government and conservation groups are spending millions of dollars to buy conservation easements on private forest land to keep it from being developed. And while Benson said the Potlatch land will be available for the state or conservation groups to purchase, neither have enough money to secure the land from being parceled up.

Benson said the company is proceeding with the sales slowly and that only about 25,000 of the 300,000 acres to be sold will be put on the market in 2007.

"This isn't a rushed liquidation of land. This is a long-term strategy,'' he said.

Potlatch, once a major player in the wood products is now a real estate holding company that seeks return on its land values. In recent years the company has sold land to conservation groups for preservation and has participated in selling conservation easements for land that they continue to own but will never develop.

It's not the first effort by Potlatch to make money off its Minnesota holdings. Potlatch in recent years also has begun leasing land for hunting groups that had been open to free access.