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Deforestation concerns delay plans to replace MN pines with potato fields

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A company's desire to level of thousands of acres of pine forest and replace it with potato fields has prompted a state review of deforestation levels in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has announced Thursday it will stop granting permits needed for potato irrigation while it investigates the impact of levels of forest loss in the northwest region "not seen in recent memory."

It comes after North Dakota potato processor, R.D. Offut, has bought up land in Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena counties, which includes some 12,000 acres of pine forests.

Some has already been cleared, with the rest slated for clearing to be converted into irrigated potato fields. The DNR says another 15,000 acres of forest in the area have the potential to be sold on and used for crops.

The Star Tribune reports that forest loss in those four counties could reach 42 square miles, and officials are concerned about the impact growing land conversion could pose for future water supplies, fish and wildlife.

The DNR won't start granting potato irrigation permits again until is produces what it's calling an "environmental assessment work sheet," which is expected to take up to a year to complete, the newspaper says.

What impact could it have?

The DNR says the area where the potatoes are being grown is home to sandy soils, which can result in nitrates contaminating local sources of water.

This could have an impact on drinking water, fish and other aquatic species, and the surface waters in northwestern Minnesota is the source of drinking water for people as far south as the Twin Cities.

Loss of pine forests could also have an adverse effect on local wildlife, particularly deer in what is an area with Minnesota's highest deer populations.

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