Virgin forest with trees up to 200 years old purchased from Will Steger
Global explorer Will Steger was hiking the North Shore ridge in 1996, at a vista along the Superior Hiking Trail, when he noticed something in the distance, off to the northwest.
"It almost looked like foothills; high country with big trees. I had never seen anything like it before up there and it just intrigued me," Steger said in an interview on Tuesday.
He returned later with a map and compass and bushwhacked into the forest to see up close what he had seen from afar.
He found giant sugar maples, white cedar, yellow birch and white spruce that were somehow spared from lumberjacks' axes and saws over the past 150 years.
"I was just blown away. After you walked through the swamps and creeks and alder brush you walk into this incredible maple uplands where you could walk with moccasins and not get them wet. The trees are so big. It's virgin forest," Steger said.
Steger returned home and started making phone calls. He first found 80 acres for sale where the big trees were standing, took out a loan and bought the land. Later he found another 160 acres for sale in the same area and, with another loan, bought that, too.
"I didn't know what I was going to do with it. But I knew it needed to be protected," Steger said.
Since then Steger has been making loan and property tax payments and wasn't sure he could continue to hold onto the land. He turned down offers to sell the land to developers.
Enter the Nature Conservancy, which was announced Wednesday it had purchased the 240 acres from Steger and will forever keep it undeveloped and open to the public. The Nature Conservancy used a combination of private donations and a $200,790 grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, money from the portion of the state sales tax set aside for natural resource and conservation projects. The Nature Conservancy declined to say how much it paid for the property.
The land is northwest of George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, north of Finland. Minnesota has less than 4 percent of its original old-growth forest remaining, and foresters have called the Steger tracts among the best they have ever seen. The Minnesota Biological Survey, the statewide analysis of biodiversity value, rates the area as "outstanding" for species diversity for mammals, plants and birds.
"These trees are as big as anything we've ever seen in Minnesota. We think they may be 200 years old," said Chris Anderson, spokesman for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota.
The land is valuable not just on its own but because it is adjacent to, and becomes part of, the Nature Conservancy's Upper Manitou Forest Preserve, which now sits at 2,400 acres. It's also contiguous with thousands of acres of state and county land, much of it set aside to protect the headwaters of the Baptism and Manitou Rivers, both North Shore trout streams.
The parcels include rock outcrops and north-facing slopes that scientists believe will be important refuges for native species to survive in a warming climate. The land remains open for many types of outdoor recreation including hiking, snowshoeing and wildlife watching.
Steger said he'll use the proceeds to help finish building his wilderness environmental center near Ely and to continue his work crusading for action to curb global climate change.
"I'm just glad we can protect those big trees," he said. "It's such a special place."