Last spring's tornado ripped through north Minneapolis and downed thousands of trees. But critics say that the cleanup in Theodore Wirth Park has done far more damage than the storm.

Those who live near the worst-hit areas said that Minneapolis forestry officials went too far, stripping the park land not only of fallen trees but also of woody debris and brush that support a diverse mix of birds and wildlife. One area, loaded with mature oak, evergreens and brush before the storm, now has a cleaner look. Its remaining trees stand out on a hilly terrain covered with so many wood chips that it looks like snow on a ski run. Across the street, tree stumps are almost all that's left in a bowl-shaped area where tall cottonwoods once swayed.

"Large portions of this area have been converted from an oak forest to a sparsely vegetated state," said Rich Baker, a Golden Valley resident who lives nearby and walks the park trails almost daily. "I think they went way overboard in removing damaged trees."

Baker works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and heads the Golden Valley Environmental Commission, but said he was speaking only for himself.

Minneapolis forestry officials acknowledge that the land looks dramatically different than before the tornado, but said they needed to conduct a thorough cleanup in order to reduce safety risks and potential fire hazards.

Wirth Park, the largest regional park in the Minneapolis system, straddles the border between Minneapolis and Golden Valley but is entirely maintained by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Minneapolis forestry director Ralph Sievert said an extensive cleanout was needed because the damage was so vast.

"You had broken tops, and trees upon trees," he said. "It was really thick."

Cleaning the park

The May 22 tornado hopscotched its way north along Theodore Wirth Parkway and into north Minneapolis. It destroyed about 2,600 park and boulevard trees and twice as many trees on private property.

Forestry crews from Minneapolis parks removed trees that blocked Wirth Parkway near Glenwood Avenue and other roads, but then spent most of the summer working in neighborhoods.

When the ground froze to better support heavy equipment in the past several weeks, forestry crews focused on parkland including a wooded area just north of Hwy. 55.

"Initially they just removed trees that were covering the trails," said Zach Handler, who lives in north Minneapolis about two blocks from the park. "But later they brought in heavy logging equipment and basically bulldozed everything."

Handler, who serves on a citizen advisory committee for Wirth Park, said he's "completely perplexed" about the forestry department's cleanup strategy. Crews did an outstanding job of working in neighborhoods, he said, but the park cleanup was "poorly managed."

Before the tornado, Handler and Baker said, the wooded areas contained a mix of young and old trees. There also were dead standing trees that make good habitat for woodpeckers and other birds that nest in tree cavities, and decaying logs that are home for burrowing animals and amphibians.

Nearly all of that has been removed and turned into acres of wood chips that blanket the hills; a nearby wetland area also was cleared, they said.

Sievert said it wasn't possible to reach the blowdown area and pull out damaged trees without using large equipment.

"For the machinery to move around and operate, you couldn't have a lot of stuff laying around on the ground for it to somehow drive over," he said.

Tidy forest -- or messy?

Baker said that removing a few downed trees might have been justified, but cutting hundreds of others that had only slight damage was unnecessary and counterproductive.

"Trees fall in the forest all the time and it doesn't damage the forest," he said. "It's part of the natural process."

Baker said he's also worried that the heavy logging equipment compacted the barely frozen soil and damaged roots of healthy trees that remain.

Forestry Supervisor Randy Windsperger said that his crews used only one piece of heavy equipment. There was no other way to clean up the site, he said.

The cost of cleaning up the two most damaged park areas was about $165,000, Windsperger said, and it was not covered by federal disaster assistance.

"My main concern was to get those trees out of there," he said. The goal also was to open space so that new trees could regenerate, he said, because "having all that downfall isn't going to create it."

Park Commissioner Anita Tabb said that she's not qualified to judge whether crews went too far in cleaning the damaged areas. Park neighbors have raised good questions worth discussing by the citizen advisory committee, she said, and suggested that the group seek expert advice about whether to restore the area and how to pay for it.

"This can and should be absolutely on the table," said Tabb, who represents the area. The timing is appropriate because the Park Board is already well into a multi-year effort to upgrade Wirth Park's trails, beaches and other recreation areas, she said.

For Baker, much of the damage has already been done. But he wants a "lessons learned" meeting with forestry officials to avoid similar decisions in the future.

"There's a whole tidy forest mentality that we're up against here," he said. "The fact is, a messy forest is a healthy forest."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388