From their yard in East Bethel, Frank and Mary Hull listen to loons and watch eagles, osprey, otters, swans and deer. Red-shouldered hawks, a rare species closely monitored by the state, also visit frequently.
"This is why we love living here," Mary Hull said. "The value of the woodlands next to our property is clear."
Soon, it may be clear-cut.
Of the 2.5 million acres in Minnesota known as School Trust Lands, few are as controversial as 60 acres of the Sandhill Crane Natural Area in northeast Anoka County. The Department of Natural Resources has proposed clear-cutting at least 40 acres of oak trees that the agency says have oak wilt, an infectious and fatal disease. But outraged opponents say the DNR is acting to uphold an outdated statute that says the land must generate revenue for schools. In this case, the payoff could be as little as $20,000.
"In the metro area, this application of the statute, this management of trust lands doesn't make much sense," Chris Lord, Anoka Conservation District manager, told a charged, standing-room-only crowd at the East Bethel City Hall last week. "Maybe this old law needs a little bit of fixing."
Opponents to the DNR proposal — including Anoka County and East Bethel — are more concerned with the immediate future than with a law that predates Minnesota's statehood. There are 103 rare plant and animal species in the Anoka Sandplain that includes the Sandhill Crane Natural Area. In addition to red-shouldered hawks, which require large areas of mature forests, the Natural Area boasts at least two known eagles' nests, Blanding's turtles and the lance-leaved violet, an extremely rare plant. All could be disturbed by an unnatural forest regeneration, opponents say.
There also is the risk of invasive species with a clear cut, said Jack Davis, East Bethel administrator.
Bob Quady, a DNR forester, agreed that a clear cut, which includes planting pine seedlings along with new oak trees, could create habitat changes in the area. But many of the trees have matured and are dying of old age, he said. Others have literally fallen to oak wilt.
Quady also noted that for almost a century, the acres in question have yielded almost no economic return to the school trust. "To meet this obligation of maximizing long-term economic return, the management would be to immediately regenerate all of the oak by harvesting," he said.
Value of the timber
The DNR has not finalized the number of acres that need to be clear cut in East Bethel. Nor has the DNR agreed on the value the timber might yield, but the figures most commonly mentioned are $20,000 to $40,000. That amount would not even pay to build an access road to the area, which Lord said could cost $120,000.
"If you're going to raise $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, how are we going to justify that to our mothers, our grandkids?" asked Mark Bouljon, an East Bethel resident.
"We came out here [to this area] because we could actually see the world as it was."
Frank Hull, an engineer, said he moved to East Bethel 10 years ago, next to the woodlands, because there are "no cars, no buses, no chain saws. I prefer the eagles and osprey. It's a nice area. We should leave it that way."
But the DNR is not about to ignore the School Trust Land statute. In 1857, the state's founding fathers agreed that revenue generated from designated land from every Minnesota township would be used to fund schools, said Aaron Vande Linde, the DNR's school-trust land administrator. Since 1858, $931 million in revenue has been generated from Minnesota trust lands, with 80 percent of it coming from the mining industry. Changing Minnesota's charter would take an act of Congress, Vande Linde said.
The DNR, which monitors all of the state's woodlands, judged that the land in East Bethel had become so vulnerable to oak wilt that it was an obvious candidate to be clear cut and help fund the trust.
But not even the DNR is united on its approach. Hannah Texler, a regional biologist with the agency who attended the meeting in East Bethel on her own, said there may be alternatives. She suggested selective cutting and oak wilt control. She cautioned that a clear cut would likely ensure the invasion of buckthorn and the cost of controlling that and other unwanted species.
Possible wild cards
And then there is the unknown: Of Minnesota's 421 bird species, 150 depend on forest, trees and shrubs, according to the DNR. At least 23 of these species are common in oak forests. Thirty-two of Minnesota's forest birds rely on tree cavities and snags for feeding and nesting. What happens to them if the forest is cut down?
The wild card in future discussions could be the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Texler said. The MPCA is a key player in an unusual partnership that owns the 495-acre Sandhill Crane Natural Area (SCNA). The other members of the SCNA Interagency Management Committee are East Bethel, Anoka County and the DNR. The committee notified the DNR last October that it opposes the clear-cut proposal.
But within that committee is another partnership: The DNR and MPCA are listed as co-trustees of natural resource damage assessment funds. The DNR is not expected to act without first consulting the MPCA, said Steve Lee, who manages closed landfills and emergency response for the MPCA.
On Monday, Texler told East Bethel Administrator Davis that an auction concerning timber, originally slated for as early as June, may be delayed until the fall, giving opponents time to mount their campaign against clear-cutting and find an alternative. The DNR had not confirmed a delay.
Local resident Dick Barnes says that clear-cutting the woodlands will turn the area into a racetrack. Another resident, Vici Nass, choked up with tears as she took the podium at City Hall last week.
"I have children," she said, referring to the woods as a treasure. "I have grandchildren. I want them to see that."