As kids, on road trips with our parents, my brother and I knew we were Up North when we reached Menahga, Park Rapids, and finally Itasca State Park. Mom and Dad always pointed out the tall pines, the pine-scented air, and the wonderful sound of the wind swirling through their long needles. These truly spectacular pines are symbols of the North Woods, representing the flora in much the same way as common loons represent the fauna. What I didn’t realize until much later in life is that most of the central and northern part of the state, which is now covered with aspen, sugar maple and paper birch, was once home to similarly majestic pines, many of them close to 150 feet tall.
The magnitude of clearing that took place in the Upper Midwest between the mid 1800s and 1930 is hard to imagine. The few remaining tall stands of both white and red pines are an accident. They were somehow missed by the lumber barons, and saved by concerned and caring citizens. In Minnesota, only about 15,000 acres remain of the original old-growth pine forest. That’s less than 1 percent of the formerly vast forest that took hundreds of years to grow.
Most of the old-growth pine forest that does remain is found in Itasca State Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In Itasca we can still see more than 25 percent of the state’s last old-growth red and white pine forests, as well as Minnesota’s record white pine and red pine.
Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.