Minnesota’s forests form a renewable resource that covers about one third of the state. With changing climate, changing industries and changing priorities, Charlie Blinn argues that we will need to be vigilant in our stewardship of them if we are to maintain them into the future.

By Charlie Blinn, Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota

Minnesota’s forests have been an important part of our heritage and folklore from the earliest days of European settlement. They gave rise to the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, who are said to be responsible for creating Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, forests covered about two thirds of the state, with large pine trees covering much of the area.

Our famous white and red pine forests offered a seemingly inexhaustible supply of timber for a growing country. The first commercial sawmill in Minnesota was built in 1839 to saw pine lumber along the St. Croix River, and soon the community of Marine-on-St. Croix formed around the mill. Other sawmills were erected in Stillwater, and in Minneapolis the sawmills built at St. Anthony Falls used water power before steam power was introduced. Steam power led to the development of sawmilling towns in Brainerd, Little Falls, Crookston, Cloquet, Duluth and International Falls. Logging peaked in 1900 when Minnesota’s pine harvest could have built over 600,000 two-story homes or a boardwalk nine feet wide encircling the equator. Our vast forests built (and rebuilt) cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Paul.

Sawmills weren’t the only use of our forests. The state’s spruce forests attracted the attention of the paper industry. The first wood-using paper mill was built in Cloquet in 1898, and others followed in International Falls, Brainerd, Grand Rapids, Sartell and Little Falls.

But with these seemingly boundless resources came problems. Between about 1850 and 1930, widespread timber harvesting with little attention to forest regeneration or safety led to dangerous buildups of residual harvest material such as cast-off tree tops. Catastrophic forest fires, fueled by hot, dry conditions and the dry residual material, devastated many northern Minnesota communities, including the most famous fires, the Hinckley fire of 1894 and the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire of 1918. Together, these fires burned over 600,000 acres and killed more than 850 people. Seeing a need to begin conservation measures and to fight the growing danger of forest fires, the state created the Minnesota Forest Service in 1911, a forerunner to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Protecting a cherished resource

Today, Minnesota’s forests are a renewable resource covering about one-third of our state. In addition to the large forested areas, trees are also an important component of many communities. Our forests are dynamic, having been shaped over time by nature (e.g., glaciation, geology, climate) and humans (e.g., land conversion, development, management). To keep this major resource—trees—healthy, our next governor needs to think big about our forests and engage the state’s citizens in discussions to ensure that we sustain the important environmental, economic and social benefits our forests provide to Minnesotans.

Our forests are aging and becoming less healthy due to a variety of major stressors and threats:

  • Fragmentation and land-use change
  • The spread of insect and disease pests
  • The arrival of invasive species that outcompete native species
  • Wildfire suppression
  • Deer browse and earthworms, which can make it difficult to regenerate a forest
  • Small- and large-scale windstorms that blow down timber
  • Changing weather patterns, which may bring warmer temperatures, wetter summers and shorter periods of frozen soils during the winter, when much of the timber in our state is harvested.

These threats will shape the future character of not just our forests but also our economy and communities. For example, Minnesota has nearly 1 billion ash trees in both large forest settings and in the urban forests of our communities. Emerald ash borer (EAB) is an invasive forest insect from Asia that infects and kills all species of ash native to our state. While our frigid winters will slow the spread of EAB, cold won’t stop it completely, and the trend toward warming winters will help facilitate its survival. In some forest settings, the loss of ash will result in a conversion to grass, cattails and shrubs. There are approximately 2.6 million ash trees in our communities with each tree providing approximately $170 in benefits annually through shading, which reduces heating and cooling costs for homes and businesses and reduces cracking and other stresses on paved roads, by absorbing water that would have runoff into storm sewers, and in other ways. Many cities in our state are dealing with EAB, either preemptively or as diseased trees are found, as ash makes up 60% of the trees in some communities. The loss of our urban ash trees will result in an additional 1.7 billion gallons of water entering our stormwater systems annually that would have otherwise been absorbed by the trees.

Minnesota’s large-scale forests can be divided into two regions, the coniferous forest biome of northeast Minnesota and the deciduous forest biome that extends on a diagonal line from the southeastern part of the state to the northwest corner, with forest cover generally decreasing as one heads from the northeast southward. Statewide, the most common forest types on an area basis are aspen (29%), oak (9%), northern hardwoods such as sugar maple and basswood (9%), lowland hardwoods such as silver maple and red elm (9%) and black spruce (9%).

For several tree species, Minnesota lies at the western, northern or southern extremes of their natural ranges, making this the area where these species will most likely be affected by climate change. Observed trends in climate during the past century reveal that precipitation has increased in northern Minnesota, particularly in summer and fall, and that daily maximum temperatures have increased as well, particularly in winter. Projected climate trends for the next 100 years indicate a potential increase in mean annual temperature of 3.0° to 8.8°F in that portion of the state. These changes in temperature and precipitation will likely cause shifts of forest species.

And while the white-tail deer is Minnesota’s most hunted game animal, because of their abundance, their browsing can have negative impacts on our forests. The result is often reduced forest regeneration (i.e., the future forest) and thus the structure and composition of our forests.

Managing for the public good

Minnesota’s forests have a positive impact daily on the lives of every resident through the many benefits they provide such as water purification, oxygen that is released during photosynthesis, soil stabilization, wildlife habitat, ecosystem diversity and the carbon they store. Forests also provide the economic value of more than 30,000 direct jobs within the forest products industry through logging, the manufacture of paper, solid and engineered wood products, window and door components, pallets, and many other products with nearly $10 billion direct value of shipments (Minnesota DNR 2017). Non-traditional industries such as the production of balsam boughs for the wreath industry (a $23 million industry), decorative spruce tops, birch bark, maple and birch syrup, wood for grilling and smoking, and the collection of several types of berries and medicinal plants also depend on our state’s forests. County and local governments and school districts also depend on a portion of timber sales receipts generated through harvests on public forest lands.

Trees have tremendous social importance as well. Our state’s forests play an important role in supporting outdoor recreational opportunities such as hiking, hunting, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and horseback riding. Many of our state’s top tourism destinations such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageur’s National Park, and Itasca State Park are found within our forests and provide many leisure and hospitality jobs.

Many Minnesotans enjoy the aesthetics provided by forests, especially during the fall when leaf colors are changing. Forests also provide opportunities for solitude and to study nature through one of our many forest-based environmental learning centers. There are many opportunities to learn about our rich forest history in places such as the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, the Hinckley Fire Museum, and the J.C. Ryan Forest History Room in Duluth.

Minnesota’s forests are owned and administered by public agencies, family forest owners, tribal governments, investors, and private industry in a patchwork of ownerships. Management of these forestlands varies immensely between ownership types and especially specific owners. Public forest land management agencies include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Minnesota Association of County Land Commissioners, which covers fifteen forested counties in northern Minnesota. There are also seven Anishinaabe reservations in northern Minnesota that manage forest lands.

Most of the public forest land is managed by agency foresters to provide multiple benefits for the public good, with each organization coordinating the management of their own lands. Those multiple benefits include maximizing financial returns (e.g., School Trust Lands), managing multiple uses (e.g., timber production, recreation), and protection and preservation (e.g., national parks and our many state parks).

There are also approximately 200,000 family forest landowners in Minnesota who manage their land for a variety of purposes, including recreation, wildlife habitat, or timber production, and there are some who don’t manage their acres at all. Family landowners have available to them on-the-ground technical assistance from private forestry consultants, industrial foresters, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and others. Environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and environmental learning centers manage forest lands to protect and provide educational experiences within ecologically important forest lands. Potlatch Corporation and Molpus Woodlands Group LLC are important industrial forest landowners who manage their ownerships to generate a financial return to their investors. The Minnesota Forestry Association is the largest forest landowner organization in the state.

Within urban areas, many municipalities manage parks with trees, while individual homeowners often have one or more trees on their property. Together these urban trees form the urban forest. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, trees cover about 27% of the land in Minnesota towns and cities. Homeowners commonly state a preference for tree-lined streets: the shade they provide reduces heating and cooling expenses, they improve the aesthetics of the environment, and they are associated with an increase in property value. About 55% of Minnesota’s population lives in a Tree City USA community, a community that maintains a tree board or department, has a community tree ordinance, spends at least $2 per capita on urban forestry, and celebrates Arbor Day. In these areas urban foresters provide technical assistance.

An ongoing responsibility

For decades, sustaining Minnesota’s forest resources has been a primary concern of both public and private entities, managing them for long-term ecosystem integrity and to sustain healthy economies and human communities. Today, Minnesota is a national leader in forest certification as a way to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable management. Forest certification is a voluntary third-party continuous-improvement process developed by the forest products industry to identify and recognize well-managed forest land. It considers the ecological, economic and social components of forests and surrounding communities. The paper and lumber that we use likely came from a certified source.

In 1994, officials completed a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) on timber harvesting and forest management commissioned by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. The study involved an extensive examination of the cumulative impacts of timber harvesting and forest management on Minnesota’s forests, aesthetics, water bodies, fish, wildlife, outdoor recreation and historical/cultural values. Even today, the GEIS represents one of the most extensive state-level studies of timber harvesting and forest management ever conducted in the United States. The next year (1995), the Minnesota Legislature enacted the Minnesota Sustainable Forest Resources Act (SFRA, M.S. 89A), establishing a number of innovative programs to promote the sustained use, management and enjoyment of our state’s forest resources.

The SFRA also established the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (MFRC), a 17-member, governor-appointed body whose responsibility is to coordinate SFRA implementation and serve as an advisory group to government and land management organizations on sustainable forest resource policies and practices. The council members represent a wide range of forest resource interests and hold public meetings every other month to discuss key issues.

Forests are a defining feature across much of our state, but today, our long history of environmental stewardship in forests is being challenged in many ways. Forest health is becoming an increasing concern in our state’s forests and the more than 300 communities that rely on them because of the linkages to their economies, environment, and social benefits (e.g., privacy, reduced noise, fall foliage) they provide.

When it comes to maintaining forests as a healthy resource for the state, we would do well to consider what Wayne Gretzky is often quoted as saying: It is important to “skate to where the puck is going and not where it has been.”

Our strong sense of environmental stewardship within our forests will be challenged by the many threats facing them. The next governor of Minnesota needs to think big about our forests and engage the citizens of our state in discussions to address the many stressors and threats that will impact our forests, ensuring that we are in a position to sustain those important resources for the future and thus the important environmental, economic and social benefits they provide to Minnesotans.

Charlie Blinn is a professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate students and conducts research and outreach education to Minnesota’s loggers and natural resource managers about a variety of forest management topics.

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