BEMIDJI -- The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Thursday announced it had temporarily ordered a halt to a massive conversion of thousands of acres of Minnesota pine forest into farmland out of concern for the state's water supply and forest ecosystem.

North Dakota-based potato grower R.D. Offutt Co. already has bought or could buy some 27,000 acres of Potlach Corp. forest land in Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena counties in north-central Minnesota with the intention of clear-cutting it for farming potatoes and other crops, the DNR said.

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"Altogether, the forest lands that have been cleared, or are at risk of being cleared, cover a total area of about 42 square miles," which is equivalent to the cities of Bemidji, Brainerd and Detroit Lakes combined, the DNR release said. "Experts say the current rate of forest loss in this region has not been seen in recent memory."

However, the DNR's jurisdiction is mainly limited to permitting for the wells RDO wants to dig to irrigate the thousands of acres of soil for the farmland. This, too, represents a potential environmental hazard in the DNR's opinion, since the wells could unreasonably drain Minnesota's water supply.

Delay could last year

Because of the potential risk, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr notified RDO on Thursday he was ordering a halt to further development on the project pending the DNR's completion of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, or EAW. The assessment, which the DNR said could take up to a year, aims to help determine what impact the project will have on Minnesota's environment.

"It's important that the DNR carefully consider the implications that this rapid forest land clearing and conversion will have on water quality, water supply, and related resources in this region and beyond," Landwehr said in the release. "People rely on these water sources, and we want to take a hard look at any potential impacts."

In an emailed statement to the Pioneer, RDO said it is "committed to preserving ground and surface water quality in the communities where we farm." The release added the the company is actively participating in a water quality study in Byron Township in Cass County in partnership with the DNR, the University of Minnesota and other agencies.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, Landwehr said an usually high amount of RDO well applications prompted the DNR assessment process.

"We felt it that it was time that we got a handle on the cumulative impact of this water withdrawal," he said. "Surely the first permits were granted because we didn't see a lot of potential adverse impacts, but as the scale of this and scope of this grows in size, we just became concerned."

Landwehr said it was possible for the DNR to impose a moratorium on further well permitting for RDO's project following the assessment's completion.

However, Landwehr also acknowledged RDO's efforts toward environmental sustainability by reducing their fertilizer and pesticide use, and cautioned that the DNR environmental assessment "should not be viewed as a negative reflection on the company."

"They have done some really amazing reductions in applications, so I applaud the company for that," Landwehr said. "I commend them for doing the right thing with respect to sustainability."

Several rare species reside in jack pine forests similar to the type being cut, Landwehr said -- including the northern goshawk, Blanding's turtle and certain species of wild strawberry.

"Obviously, whenever you lose any of that habitat, you lose places for those species to thrive," he said.

The clear-cutting also could threaten the local deer population, one of the highest in the state, the DNR said.