"I was born and raised in Chicago, but my mom's family is from Tower, and all my cousins were from northern Minnesota. My great-great-grandfather was a Cornish immigrant who opened the mine in Tower in 1882. His wife and children came over from Cornwall, arrived on Christmas morning a few years later -- and not long after that he was killed in a mine accident. She was left on the frontier with kids and no visible means of support, so she opened a boarding house. The family has been there ever since."
This meant trips from teeming Chicago to the unpopulated lands of the country. "I spent my summers up there as a kid, and when I grew up I got a grant from the Wilderness Research Foundation to write a book about the changing landscape. It's called "Forest for the trees: How Humans Shaped the Northwoods." (Plug: the Minnesota Historical Society reprinted it last summer.) What he discovered goes against most of what we think we know. The Boundary Waters, for example, isn't some pristine ancient forest. It didn't look like that before logging. That's what followed after logging. As for the rest of the state, well, he calls it the most interesting sandbox on the continent, tree-wise. Here's why:
"Minnesota is really interesting where four continental ecotones overlap. You've got the Great Plains pushing up from south and west, ending where Cloquet is. We think that's the wild prairie, but that was a result of tribal fire practices. That wasn't a natural ecosystem. That was a cultural artifact. From the east, you have the white pine belt, from Maine, around the Great Lakes, over the top in Canada, then terminates around Cloquet. Then you have the hardwood forest from south and east, into the Twin Cities, oaks and elms and basswoods and maples. There's very little left; it was cut down for farming. Then you have the arctic arboreal forest, fir, aspen, spruce, terminating about Cloquet. Overlaps in the center of the state. Only place in North America where this happens.
"If you are looking for change due to climate change or human impacts, it is most apparent on the edge, and Minnesota has a lot of edge.
"Biggest thing is deer. There were no deer in northern Minnesota. Pre-settlement it was caribou, elk, moose, buffalo. The forests were much more open, more grass."
Then Bambi came in. "The caribou and elk were pushed out as their ecological niche was destroyed. Deer also carry a brain worm that kills moose." If he had his way, there'd be fewer deer and less fire suppression, noting that "Fire moved over the Boundary Waters every 30 years," regenerating the forests. His organization has also worked to pass the Aquatic Invasive Species laws last year, measures that combat nasty, uninvited species like zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil.
His organization works to preserve what we have, and lobbies St. Paul for tree-savvy and lake-protection laws: Tax pressures incentivize owners to sell and subdivide forests and shoreline, which leads to more difficulty in putting together comprehensive strategies. "Fire suppression and property tax codes," he says, "are the most detrimental things to our forests and lakes."
When he drives around the state, does he see the landscape in terms of those four different systems, the results of old practices, the impact of new arrivals and government policy? Well, of course. But that doesn't mean he doesn't see the beauty that resulted -- or, for that matter, the drama.
"I sold a screenplay about a fire in the Boundary Waters," he said. "It's called 'Flashpoint.' He hopes it will come to a movie theater near you. Not a forest.