Minnesota timber available for harvest on state-owned lands will increase from 800,000 to 870,000 cords annually in the next decade under a long-awaited plan with the delicate goal of balancing forest ecology with the demands of the forest industry.
State-owned forests can tolerate a bigger harvest, but not the 1 million cords industry leaders requested, state Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said during a news conference Thursday.
In addition, in a five-year experiment, another 30,000 cords of tamarack and black ash that are increasingly vulnerable to insect infestations will be offered for sale. Selling off those trees will help control the spread of the bugs, he said, but the industry will have to find ways to use those trees, because they are not now in high demand.
The decision, prompted by Gov. Mark Dayton at the urging of the industry, follows a year of extensive modeling of Minnesota's forests and input by industry and forest conservationists.
But neither group was particularly happy with the outcome.
Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, said he was disappointed by what he described as a "politically motivated" decision. The state could increase the harvest to more than a million cords without harm, he said.
Brandt said the DNR spent half a million dollars on consultants who conducted the most sophisticated analysis the state has ever done on its forests. But in the end, the DNR concluded "that what they are doing is the right thing," he said.
Impact of climate change
Don Arnosti, conservation program director of the Izaak Walton League and a member of the DNR's forest harvest advisory committee, said the harvest increase was more aggressive than he liked, but far better than the industry's goal.
Arnosti and others said the state should have done more to consider the effect that climate change is already having on Minnesota's forests, and what effect it will have in the future.
For example, he said, warmer winters mean that the industry will have less and less time to harvest trees in the winter, a season when heavy equipment can go over frozen wetlands and lakes. Nor did the state study whether trees are likely to grow faster as temperatures rise, or the growing threat of bugs like emerald ash borer and larch beetles.
"We don't know what will thrive and survive," Arnosti said. "We are using up options and playing with the future of the forest."
Higher harvest levels most likely will mean that older stands of forest, which support some of Minnesota's most vulnerable species like pine martens and Connecticut warblers, will remain in short supply. The industry prefers younger trees, and aspen in particular. Arnosti said the state needs more of the older stands to increase biological diversity in the long run.
Landwehr said the plan does take forest age into consideration. "We are trying to balance both," he said.
Jim Manolis, a forest conservationist with the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota, said that if the state plans to increase its harvest, it should also increase reforestation by replanting with diverse and resilient types of trees that will withstand the climatic changes they will experience during their long lives.
That means adding sites dedicated to forest resilience and "not just letting the aspen grow back," he said.
In 2016 Dayton promised Minnesota Forest Industries that the DNR would increase its annual harvest from 800,000 cords, which it has done with the new plan. He also directed the agency to determine whether the forests could sustainably withstand harvests of 1 million cords or more that they once produced.
Industry representatives made the request in an effort to increase timber supply and reduce the price. The overall amount of available timber in Minnesota has dropped by a million cords per year since the 2008 recession, primarily because private landowners, who own the majority of forested land in northern Minnesota, have stopped selling it.
As a result, the price of cutting an aspen tree, the primary species used by the industry, has increased in recent years from $25 to more than $35, industry officials said.
In the last two years, the DNR has added foresters to its staff who work with private landowners on management plans and harvesting, which is critical to forest health. But Brandt said that so far those sales haven't budged, which makes public lands vital for the industry.
The DNR manages 5 million acres of forest lands — just under a third of the state's total. Timber harvesting is allowed on 2.75 million acres of state forests, wildlife management areas, and school and university trust lands. They provide about 30 percent of the state's wood supply for Minnesota's forest products industry, which employs 64,000 people. The rest comes from federal, county, and privately owned lands.
Brandt said he was also frustrated that the DNR was not more aggressive with harvesting on school trust lands, which are designated as revenue-producing assets for state schools. "They won't treat them differently than other state lands, which is not giving a fair shake to the trust obligations," he said.