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Our Land & Water Work

Our Region

The North Central Region of Minnesota is one of incalculable beauty, considered a premier recreational region of Minnesota. Its natural resources attract people to live, work, and play here and enjoy a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. It includes:

  • 800 of Minnesota’s 4,500 managed fishing lakes.Area Map
  • A majority of Mille Lacs Lake, the second largest lake in Minnesota, and all of Leech Lake, the third largest lake in Minnesota.
  • Thousands of miles of rivers and streams, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
  • Some of the “best-of-the-best” fish and wildlife habitat in Minnesota.
  • Thousands of acres of public, state, and private forests.
  • Hundreds of miles of recreational trails.
  • A high degree of biodiversity that includes:  
  • 1/2 of Minnesota’s native Muskie habitat,
    • Over 100 species of fish and wildlife of “greatest conservation need” including 29 on the federal or state endangered or threatened list,
    • the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and
    • healthy loon, deer, bear, grouse, migratory waterfowl and songbird populations.

The Minnesota DNR’s Long Range Plan for Aquatic Management Areas ranks this region of Minnesota as a high priority for conserving sensitive aquatic environments. 



The Northern Waters Land Trust has a very unique opportunity to offer landowners–the ability to protect our water quality, preserve critical habitat, and receive compensation for keeping this region unique and special. We launched our Clean Water Critical Habitat Program in 2014 with funding provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund. This program assists conservation-minded landowners to place conservation easements on lakeshore and forested parcels in the watersheds of selected high priority lakes that are considered come of the best in the region.

Researchers have established a direct correlation between increasing development and declining water quality. We only have to look at lakes in other parts of the country to see the impacts poor water quality can have. Attempts at lake restoration are extremely expensive and often ineffective. With this program, we have an opportunity to make wise investments today that will protect your lake and avoid the costly mistakes that other regions are facing.

We are eager to meet with interested landowners who want to learn more about conservation easements and how powerful land conservation can be in protecting water quality. Here is your opportunity to protect the place you love and receive compensation for doing it.

These are competitive programs and applications need to be reviewed, scored, and carefully considered by technical review teams.
The application deadline for the Clean Water Critical Habitat Program was July 31, 2018. 

CWCH Landowner Brochure
CWCH Landowner Application



Fisheries research has shown that healthy watersheds with intact forests are fundamental to good fish habitat. If a lake’s watershed has less than 25% land disturbance and 75% or more of its landscape remains forested and permanently protected, the lake has a high probability of sustaining clean water and healthy lake ecosystem to support fish. Projects that can simultaneously reduce shoreline development and watershed disturbances can yield the greatest conservation return.

We focus our protection strategy on 38 Tullibee Refuge Lake and their watersheds.  Tullibee are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” fish species due to their sensitivity to even slight changes in water temperature and oxygen levels.  A decrease in tullibee population can signal deterioration of the lake’s water quality.  Protecting lakes from excess nutrients such as phosphorus is critical to maintaining sufficient oxygen levels.  Forestland plays a key role in ensuring quality habitat, acting like a sponge to absorb and hold rainfall and reduce runoff to the surface waters of lakes and streams.  Tullibee is an important food source for lake trout, northern pike, muskie and walleye.  This program will also benefit habitat for many wildlife and water fowl species. 

The conservation easement program focuses on critical shoreland and forested parcels. With strategic
effort, it is feasible to reach permanent 75% watershed protection for many of the 38 tullibee refuge lakes. Additionally, we will develop conservation complexes that can act as corridors, connecting existing protected land and expanding their impact.


The Northern Waters Land Trust and the Minnesota Land Trust use a competitive application process to select conservation easements for funding on private lands within Minnesota’s North Central lake region which includes Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Aitkin Counties.  Using a multi-faceted approach to prioritizing easements, a technical committee comprised of County and State agencies and project partners will weigh the overall habitat benefits of the property against the costs of acquiring the easement.

Funding will be invested on lands within the tullibee refuge lake watersheds although special project applications outside the focus area will also be accepted and evaluated for their potential to protect critical fish habitat.  A complete list of current lakes is below.  

Initial applications are non-binding.  Landowners and project partners are not legally bound to a conservation easement until both parties agree to and sign final conservation easement documents.


Each landowner will have their land scored based on a set of established habitat value factors.  This habitat value score takes into account the size of the parcel, ecological features, amount of shoreline, protection of water quality, location in relation to other protected lands, etc.

To ensure we maximize our ecological impact, we are asking landowners to consider taking less than full compensation.  This will allow us to increase the total number of acres protected and help create a competitive process.  A landowner’s willingness to take less than full appraised value of the easement will be taken into consideration when applications are reviewed, but will not be the sole determining factor.  You may choose to be fully compensated, partially compensated, or to donate the easement.

The applications will then be ranked based on the tract’s habitat value.  Examples of criteria include; feet of sensitive shoreland, percentage of wetland, percentage in forest, and proximity to public or other protected lands. Existence of forest management plans and the number of additional homesites the applicant would like to retain will also be factored and rated.  After all the applications have been received, a compilation of scores with rankings will be assembled and used to guide the selection process.

Easements will be funded in order of highest project value rating to lowest.  After the highest rated project is selected, the application with the next highest rating will be selected in order until all available funds have been assigned to selected projects.  If for any reason a conservation easement does not move forward or the application is withdrawn, the next highest rated project may be selected. 


Conservation easements are individually tailored agreements through which landowners limit the use and development of their property to permanently preserve its natural or scenic features.  These features – called conservation values – might include significant wildlife and plant habitat, lake or river shoreline, wetlands or important scenic or cultural lands which benefit the public.  Conservation easements targeted at sensitive shoreland and private forest within tullibee refuge lake watersheds are an effective approach to protecting water quality.

In order to protect these conservation values, certain restrictions regarding use of the property and the reserved rights of the landowner are detailed in a conservation easement, which is conveyed to a non-profit conservation organization or government agency qualified to hold and enforce easements.  In this program the Minnesota Land Trust will be holding acquired easements.  Once the easement is signed by the landowner and the easement holder, the document is filed with the local county land records.

Most conservation easements, including all of those by the Minnesota Land Trust, are perpetual.  They apply to the current and all future landowners, permanently protecting the property.  Each conservation easement is unique and is individually crafted to reflect the special characteristics of the land and the particular situation of the landowner.

The Clean Water Critical Habitat Project partners are the Minnesota Land Trust and MN DNR.

The program is funded by the Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment.


Funding will be focused on lands within the tullibee refuge lake watersheds although special project applications outside the focus area will also be accepted and evaluated for their potential to protect critical fish habitat.

Aitkin County: Cedar Lake, Long Lake, Round Lake
Cass County: Bass Lake, Cooper Lake, Deep Portage Lake, Girl Lake, Leech Lake, Little Boy Lake, Long Lake, Mann Lake, Roosevelt Lake, , Thunder Lake, Washburn Lake, Wabedo Lake, Woman Lake
Crow Wing County: Big Trout, Borden Lake, , Crooked Lake, Island Lake, Kenny Lake, Lower Hay Lake, Ossawinamakee Lake, Pelican Lake, Roosevelt Lake, Star Lake, Whitefish Lake
Hubbard County: Big Mantrap Lake, Big Sand Lake, Eleventh Crow Wing Lake, Kabekona Lake, Ninth Crow Wing Lake, Spearhead Lake





For questions, contact John Sumption, our Land Conservation Specialist (218-368-8304 or sumptionenv@gmail.com).