Washburn Lake Watershed, Cass County Forest Addition

Washburn Lake is classified as a tullibee (cisco) refuge lake.

Protection of land in the lake’s watershed is an important way to preserve water quality in this important cold-water lake.

The opportunity to purchase and convey a 18.5 acre land-locked property in the Washburn Lake watershed to Cass County for permanent protection arose in early 2020.  The property is located in Trelipe Township with 1,450 shoreline feet on Lake George.  Located about three miles northwest of Outing, Washburn Lake is the fifth largest lake in the Pine River Major Watershed.

The property was purchased and conveyed through the NWLT Clean Water Critical Habitat Program.  This program was established in 2011 to protect high priority tullibee/cisco lakes and their watersheds in the north central “lakes country” (i.e., Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard) using grants from the State of Minnesota for conservation easements and fee title acquisition.  NWLT partners with public agencies, such as Counties and the State of Minnesota, and private organizations such as lake associations to identify willing sellers and properties important to the agency land management goals, to secure funding through grants, and to acquire and convey those properties to partner agencies.

Tullibee are a preferred forage fish of walleye, northern pike, muskellunge and lake trout. They require cold, well-oxygenated waters, a condition most common in deep water lakes with healthy watersheds.

There are 68 cold water lakes that are considered “refuge lakes” for tullibee in Minnesota and 38 of these are found in the Aitkin, Cass, Crow-Wing and Hubbard counties.   These north central Minnesota lakes attract people nationwide for their natural states, beauty, fishing, and other outdoor recreational opportunities.  Cold water lakes in northern Minnesota are vulnerable to habitat degradation and warming temperatures.

A lake’s ecosystem and water quality have a high probability of being maintained if 75% of its watershed is undisturbed.  State reports indicate this region could experience significant water quality and fisheries degradation in the coming decades without direct conservation.  Lakes and watersheds with natural, undisturbed land cover along the shorelines and within their watersheds will have the best chance to sustain high water quality and tullibee populations in the face of shoreland development and a changing climate.  And sustaining a strong angling heritage revolves largely around protecting fisheries habitat.  Approximately 86% of the 27,500 acre Washburn Lake watershed is protected.

Cass County Land Department administers approximately 255,000 acres of tax-forfeited land.  About three-quarters of this land is forested and the remainder includes brushlands, water, and developed uses such as forest roads and gravel pits.  The most common cover type is aspen; however, the County also manages spruce-fir, oak, birch, and other hardwoods forest types.  The Cass County Land Department has been third-party certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for responsible forest management since 2001.

NWLT secured Outdoor Heritage Funds through a Lessard – Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) grant in 2018 to acquire the recent addition to the Cass County Forest Lands.  Cass County generously provided the required 10% match for the grant.

Bob Karls, Northern Waters Land Trust Board Chair, notes that “Northern Waters Land Trust has a sharp focus on the preservation of waters in Minnesota’s lake country.  Using grants, we help landowners protect their land and ultimately preserve water quality in our lakes.  We are pleased to continue to partner with Cass County, the State of Minnesota, lake associations and conservation minded people who value clean water.”

The Outdoor Heritage Fund was created in 2008 when Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment (Legacy Amendment) to the Minnesota Constitution.  These funds “may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife.”