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.
Some of those cleared areas, about 1,200 acres, are being managed with a series of prescribed burns. The objective, Dunkley explained, is to open what had been a dense forest canopy and bring back pine barren and oak savanna ecosystems. Now rare, those habitats — characterized by sparser tree cover with more prairie grasses and wildflowers — had once flourished and regenerated in natural cycles when wildfires (now mimicked by prescribed burns) were started by lightning.
“I would see it being set back to another time, when there was more fire activity in general,” Dunkley said. “There was just a little more clearing activity that went on.”
Signs of prairie are already clear at one such site: Tall bluestem grass, cheery orange-yellow hoary puccoon, pink wild roses and white blackberry blossoms are reaching for the open sunshine.
While those areas will be intensively managed into the future, a good portion of the blowdown has been simply left alone, Dunkley said. Some of the areas are inaccessible, while others were identified as being Indian burial sites that should not be disturbed. As the wood decomposes, fast-growing aspen and ash have been moving in. Meanwhile, the buildings have been repaired or rebuilt, and the visitors have flocked back.
Similar recovery is going on in the nearby state forests, where about 95 percent of the timber salvage operations are complete, said Jeremy Fauskee, Sandstone area forestry supervisor with the state Department of Natural Resources.
“We lost a lot of oak stands and a lot of other hardwood stands,” Fauskee said. One of the goals is to bring back more jack pine and oak trees and keep aspen from taking over. “It’s going to be a challenge — aspen loves windstorms, any kind of disruption.”
It’s also been a challenge to find the money to restore the forests, a cost estimated by Fauskee at $6 million over 10 years. Wide-ranging plans include aggressive replanting and building up two cold-water streams that could support trout.
Like St. Croix State Park, the state forest’s campground has been repaired, along with a popular horse trail — though riders have been slow to return, Fauskee said. “It’s really a shame, that Tamarack River Valley is beautiful,” he said.
Dunkley and Fauskee said the restoration effort has offered a rare opportunity to educate visitors about what goes into restoring forest land after a natural disaster.
“But hopefully, it will never happen again,” Fauskee said.