Clean Water Critical Habitat Program

About the Clean Water Critical Habitat Program

In 2014, Northern Waters Land Trust (NWLT), in partnership with the Minnesota Land Trust, launched the Clean Water Critical Habitat (CWCH) program. CWCH focuses on protecting critical shoreland and forested parcels, either through a conservation easement or fee title acquisitions. Funding is provided from the Outdoor Heritage Fund as part of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Fisheries research shows that healthy watersheds with intact forests are fundamental to good fish habitat and that conservation easements on sensitive shoreland and private forests are an effective approach to protecting water quality. Reaching a 75% level of protection — meaning maintaining natural landscape or forested land along 75% of the shoreline, is our goal as science shows that the lake has a high probability of sustaining clean water and healthy lake ecosystem to support fish and other wildlife.

NWLT’s Clean Water Critical Habitat program targets parcels within select tullibee refuge lakes or watersheds within the lakes region, with the goal of reaching 75% protection.

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. Tullibee are an important forage fish for walleye, northern pike, muskies, and lake trout. Degraded watershed health, poor shoreline development, and climate warming are consent threats to tullibee. Preserving natural, undisturbed land cover and well managed shorelines offer the best chance to protect tullibee and other related fish populations.

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 — a region supported by the Northern Waters Land Trust. This lakes area attracts residents and visitors alike to enjoy their natural beauty, fishing, and numerous outdoor recreational opportunities — most of which center around our pristine waters.

To view a map of this project's service area and conservation successes, click on this link: CWCH Project Summary (Fall 2021)


Interested in this conservation program?
Click here to apply for current and future grant opportunities.

Clean Water Critical Habitat Map

Northern Waters Land Trust, in partnership with local conservation organizations, has developed a user-friendly Clean Water Critical Habitat map. This resource identifies properties within cold water refuge lake watersheds, and scores their need for conservation. The higher the score, the higher the need for conservation action.

Click here to watch a tutorial video on how to operate this map.

If you, your lake association, or community organization are interested in discussing the CWCH map, to see what it means for watersheds and lakeshore near you, please reach out to us. We would be happy set up a meeting.

In order to access the CWCH map, please read the following disclosure statement:

The data in this Critical Habitat Map is intended to aid in establishing land and water conservation and protection priorities.  The Northern Waters Land Trust does not collect, save, or sell the data of any persons or entities accessing this map.  The Northern Waters Land Trust makes no representation or warranties, express or implied, with respect to the use or reuse of the critical habitat and other data provided herewith, regardless of its format or the means of its transmission. THE DATA IS PROVIDED "AS IS" WITH NO GUARANTEE OR REPRESENTATION ABOUT THE ACCURACY, CURRENCY, SUITABILITY, PERFORMANCE, MERCHANTABILITY, RELIABILITY, OR FITNESS OF THE DATA FOR ANY PARTICULAR PURPOSE. The Northern Waters Land Trust shall not be liable for any direct, indirect, special, incidental, compensatory or consequential damages or third-party claims resulting from the use of this data, even if the Northern Waters Land Trust has been advised of the possibility of such potential loss or damage. This data may not be used in states that do not allow the exclusion or limitation of incidental or consequential damages.

Please click here to access the CWCH map
and agree to the intent, terms, and conditions under which this critical habitat and other data are provided.


Program Process

1) Landowners receive information
NWLT staff or contractors work with local lake associations, civic groups and more to connect with land owners to discuss conservation opportunities.
2) Landowners apply to participate in the program
Complete, sign and submit application which asks for some basic information about your land. It allows us to research your lake and land and prepare for a technical review.
3) Properties are evaluated and ranked by a technical committee
The land or property is scored based on a set of established habitat value factors. This habitat value score takes into account ecological features, amount of shoreline, protection of water quality, location in relation to other protected lands, etc. Generally speaking, larger parcels are favored higher than smaller parcels, and some landowner donation in the project helps, but dozens of considerations play into the rankings.

The technical committee is made up of our conservation partners – representatives from MN Dept of Natural Resources, BWSR, local county land department offices, Soil & Water Conservation Districts and more.

Land owners with parcels that rank highest will be contacted first about continuing the process. This process continues in the order of property ranking until all grant funds have been used.

If landowners consider offering a partial value of their land cost as a donation to the process, even more land may be protected through this grant program.
4) Landowners are engaged in drafting the conservation easement
Our partner, Minnesota Land Trust, then facilitates the conservation easement process. This involves determining the type of easement wanted (specific language about what should be allowed and what shouldn’t) a land survey, title work, an appraisal and drafting the final legal documents. These steps must be performed in accordance to DNR standards and requirements to utilize the Outdoor Heritage grant funds.
5) Land is protected!
The conservation easement agreement is recorded with your deed/title, and a monitoring program is established.

It’s important to realize that these program steps take many months, and realistically, even years to facilitate.





Why Conservation Matters

(Click on map for larger view)

Current lakes/watersheds targeted with this grant-based program:

Aitkin County: Cedar Lake, Long Lake, Round Lake
Cass County: Girl Lake, Long Lake (Longville), Long Lake (Walker), Roosevelt Lake, May Lake, Howard Lake, Thunder Lake, Cooper Lake, Man Lake,
Crow Wing County: Big Trout Lake, Borden Lake, Pelican Lake, Rush Lake, Crooked Lake, Whitefish Lake
Hubbard County: Big Mantrap Lake, Big Sand Lake, Kabekona Lake, East Crooked Lake, Ninth and Eleventh Crow Wing Lakes, Spearhead Lake

Special consideration is also given for land that connects to existing protected land, or along waterways in or out of these key watersheds.

Tullibee Fish
Tullibee require cold, well oxygenated waters - a condition most common in lakes with deep water and healthy surrounding watersheds.

When habitats of these fish change, we are warned about three major threats to Minnesota’s clean water and sports fisheries:

  • Degraded watershed health
  • Extensive shoreline development
  • Climate warming