Land conversion needs second look

Deforestation rates in north-central Minnesota have spiked in the last decade, prompting concerns about contaminated groundwater and other potential problems. Since 2006, an estimated 275 square miles of pine forest in the region have been cleared to make room for potato, corn and soybean crops.

Much of the development has taken place directly over the Pineland Sands Aquifer, a water supply at high risk of contamination from fertilizers. The aquifer is also vulnerable to depletion — requests for irrigation permits are more than 10 times higher than they were just two years ago.

Last week, the Department of Natural Resources announced a temporary stop on land conversion, which is projected to last nine to 12 months. In the meantime, the DNR will assess the current and future impacts of deforestation and agricultural development in the region. If the assessment finds “severe threats” to the aquifer or surrounding forest, further land conversion may be blocked.

The biggest agricultural developer in the area, R.D. Offutt Company, said in a statement last week that it is “concerned about maintaining ground and surface water quality and welcome[s] the opportunity to continue to work with the DNR.”

The potential for water contamination has already driven one nearby city to revamp its water sourcing and treatment, costing it millions of dollars. We need to weigh this problem — as well as the potential for soil erosion and wildlife disruption that may result from further deforestation — against the benefits of expanded agriculture. Consequently, we support the DNR’s decision to halt land conversion until its full effects are understood.