St. Croix State Park recovering three years after a devastating windstorm

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2014 - 11:46 AM

On the third anniversary of a massive blowdown that affected 13,000 acres of St. Croix State Park, signs of recovery are emerging.

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A logger used a feller buncher to remove dead wood from damaged forestland at St. Croix State Park. About 5,300 of the park's 13,000 damaged acres have been cleared by loggers.

It was all over in a minute, maybe two.

But three years on, the scars across 13,000 acres of St. Croix State Park left behind by a monstrous windstorm remain deep, if slowly and steadily fading. In some areas, restoring vast swaths of flattened forestland has been pushed along with the help of intentional burns and logging; in others, it’s being left to Mother Nature, which has expertly managed such massive blowdowns for millennia.

When the last signs of those wounds vanish in another decade or so, a good portion of the 34,000-acre state park, the largest in Minnesota and one of its most popular, will be significantly changed — and for the better, managers say.

The last of the loggers is leaving soon, but other work of healing and transformation goes on.

“We’ve done just an enormous amount of work to start to get things back together — along with still running the park and having visitors, campers and group campers and day campers to deal with,” said Rick Dunkley, who came on as park manager right after the storm. “It’s just been a blur.”

It was indeed a dark and stormy night on July 1, 2011. The Friday of the July 4th weekend, the park normally would have been teeming with as many as 3,000 campers, hikers and picnickers, but uglier-than-normal squabbling at the Legislature had triggered a government shutdown, and the park was closed.

A massive storm that took six hours to march from southwestern Minnesota had gathered momentum as it arrived in Pine County in the early evening, packing winds estimated at 100 miles per hour when it hit St. Croix State Park.

In seconds, thousands of trees snapped like twigs and smashed to the ground; the park’s radio tower folded over like a bent straw. A group of Youth Conservation Corps workers gathered in a building as trees and limbs fell around them. Karl Slieve, the assistant park manager (who technically was furloughed because of the shutdown), was caught in his pickup and found his path blocked by heavy limbs. He took cover in a ditch — and came face to face with a huge black bear who had the same idea.

At a nearby farm, Dunkley said, a group working in a field huddled near large hay bales and watched.

“They said what was really interesting is that the trees that were in their grove would flex all the way to the ground, bounce back and then flex to the ground again multiple times,” he said. “And some would break a little each time.”

And the same thing happened in the park. Trees that hadn’t fallen had been weakened and, three years later, are still dying from those injuries.

Besides slashing through timber like a scythe, the storm damaged 75 of the park’s nearly 200 buildings, many of them historic, having been built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roads and trails were blocked. “There were trees stacked 30 feet high in places,” Dunkley said.

Beyond the state park, more than 10,000 acres of timber were damaged in nearby St. Croix State Forest as well as between 2,000 and 3,000 acres in both the Chengwatana and Nemadji state forests.

The park was closed for about three months as the damage was assessed, some debris was cleared to allow access for vehicles and machinery, and a plan was laid out for the daunting cleanup effort. “It was a tactical plan,” Dunkley said, adding with a laugh: “And I have a few more gray hairs from that tactical plan.”

The immediate concern was the fire hazard posed by the fallen timber. Though much was still green, as was seen in the huge 1999 blowdown in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the worst fire risk came several years later. There have been no wildfires at St. Croix State Park since the blowdown.

Some of the blowdown area, about 5,300 acres, has been cleared by loggers who bid on the work. Some of the wood was suited for lumber, but much has gone for chips, pulp or sold to Xcel Energy for biomass fuel. About 100,000 cords of wood have been harvested, with the state netting close to $1 million, Dunkley said. That logging work in the park will be wrapped up soon.

In some areas, small amounts of downed wood are also sold or used at the park as firewood. Some wood is even being transformed into benches by the park’s shop.

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  • St. Croix State Park Manager Rick Dunkley surveyed the regrowth in a prescribed burn area at the park.

  • About 1,200 acres in the damaged area are being managed with a series of prescribed burns. This dramatic photo, capturing the immediate aftermath of a controlled burn, was taken this spring.

  • The storm left hundreds of trees dead but still standing. Fierce winds sent some trees bending all the way to the ground, only to later die from the stress.

  • Wild roses dotted one of the park's controlled burn areas. Three years later, wildflowers offer a visible sign of hope and renewal.

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