Forestry, as viewed through the trees

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2011 - 12:20 AM

The DNR is reconsidering the direction of its forestry division, raising questions answered here by Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

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A hardwood stand in central Minnesota showed its true colors. The DNR has begun the process of changing how it manages the state’s timber.

Photo: Ann Heisenfelt, Associated Press

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Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr recently reassigned his top two forestry officials and is looking for a new forestry division director.

Rocked in recent years by funding shortfalls, DNR forestry is working with considerably fewer employees. Yet demands on it remain high: Industry wants more state timber made available to it, as many private landowners wait for depressed stumpage prices to recover before selling.

In the interview below, Landwehr discusses forestry division and timber management issues facing the DNR.

Q The forestry division has 80 vacancies because of budget shortfalls in recent years.

A We're trying to address forestry staffing. But there's only so much money. In my view it's a result of short-sighted budgeting (by the Legislature). Foresters more than pay for themselves and their expenses in timber they put up for sale each year.

Q Some loggers and producers complain the state's extended rotation forestry (ERF) guidelines, which intends to keep 15 percent of aspen older than 40 years, has resulted instead in as much as 40 percent of aspen being older than that, reducing timber available to industry.

A The commercial rotation age for aspen is 40 years. If more than 15 percent is being retained that is older than that, due to ERF, we need to adjust.

Q Aspen prices are still low compared to a few years ago but have risen in the past year.

A The pulp and saw-timber market might not be going up. But prices are. Aspen was about $20 a cord last year, now it's about $32. Still, many private landowners aren't selling, which puts pressure on state timber.

Q You've reassigned forestry division director Dave Epperly and assistant director Bob Tomlinson to the division of land and minerals. Why?

A The division had begun a reorganization plan before I took office. In it, it was decided the division needed only one assistant director. That left Bob out of a job. But he has great skills as a forester, and we wanted to make use of them in a different position. Dave also is an excellent forester. But as we looked ahead at what we needed to do in the division, it became clear the direction we wanted to go as an agency and the direction Dave wanted to go weren't lining up. So we reassigned Dave.

We didn't want to lose the skills of either Bob or Dave, because they're excellent foresters who can help us address some very significant forestry policy issues that have to be decided at the highest level. The laws governing state forestry sales needs to be rewritten, for example -- something that hasn't been done for decades. We also need to rewrite our sustainable forestry management plans. Finally, we want to apply to other counties a land asset management plan that we worked out in recent years with Roseau County.

Q Finding a new director could be difficult.

A We have no obvious candidates internally. But someone might emerge. It's an extremely challenging job. We have 5.5 million acres of public lands in the state, with about 4.5 million acres of timber. By law, the most we can pay for someone in that position is $108,000. The Forest Service and industry can offer from 30 percent to 100 percent more. It will take someone who is excited by the prospects and challenges.

Q Industry at times has complained that fish and wildlife considerations by the DNR as part of state timber sales are given too much weight by the agency, costing loggers money.

A The perception in some quarters is that timber sales are impeded by wildlife biologists and forest ecologists -- that people in those positions don't want timber cut. That's not true.

It is true that before sales are put up, reviews from a forest ecology standpoint are required. Can the process be more efficient? We believe it can.

From a wildlife standpoint, it's not so much what you're cutting but what you're leaving -- making sure you have a good rotation mix. Wildlife also benefits from forestry best-practice guidelines, which require us to protect riparian areas and wetlands, for example.

Arguably, these and other considerations have added some bureaucracy. The challenge is to keep these safeguards and still be more efficient. If our field guys put up 12,000 to 15,000 board feet of timber for sale a year, how do we get that number to 20,000?

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