WHITEWATER WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA – On a recent day, Bob Tangen gazed to the top of one of southeast Minnesota's many bluffs, countless of which in the region are blanketed with mature northern red oaks.

But the bluff that was the focus of Tangen's attention was largely devoid of trees, having been logged a few years ago.

Whether the hillside, which lies within Whitewater Wildlife Management Area (WMA), will ever again be graced with oaks and the deer, turkeys and songbirds they nurture is unknown.

"You log down here, and unless you've prepared the site ahead of time and care for it afterward, pretty much what you get in place of the trees you cut is buckthorn,'' said Tangen, a retired Department of Natural Resources Whitewater WMA assistant wildlife manager.

Beautiful as they are, oaks exist in southeast Minnesota as much by chance as design. Wildfires that swept across the area before settlement helped propagate these majestic trees naturally by clearing forest understory and allowing young oaks to regenerate in direct sunshine.

As the region was settled by pioneers, many hillsides were grazed and burned, which again provided an ideal environment for red oak, as well as American basswood, sugar maple and prickly gooseberry.

In the years since, as these and other hardwoods have matured and fires and grazing in the southeast have declined, shade-tolerant species such as buckthorn — an invasive plant that is extremely difficult to eradicate — have thrived.

Tangen, along with his former boss, retired Whitewater WMA wildlife manager Jon Cole, says that planned, periodic logging of selected tracts within Whitewater's 27,000 acres benefits the forest and the fish and wildlife those trees support.

Indeed, DNR wildlife managers throughout the state's 1,440-unit WMA system, which blankets some 1.29 million acres, consider forest management to be among tools they regularly employ to sustain plants and animals.

"It wasn't just oak cuttings we would include in our planned timber harvests,'' Cole said. "Deer and turkeys, of course, love oaks and acorns. But other birds are more dependent on cottonwoods and willows, for example, and in the cuttings that were part of our 10-year Whitewater WMA forest management plans, we also included those species.''

Since Cole and Tangen have retired, however, a new DNR management scheme has been implemented that in some cases places wildlife benefits secondary on WMAs to timber production.

Former Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 directed the DNR to determine whether 1 million cords of timber could be cut annually from state property, up from a previous goal of 800,000 cords.

An annual target of 870,000 cords eventually was decided upon. About 12% is slated to come from WMAs.

In an unprecedented action, 28 DNR wildlife managers subsequently wrote to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen saying the additional timber taken from WMAs would hurt wildlife and that it was "scientifically dishonest'' to say otherwise.

The managers also said DNR Fish and Wildlife Division staff should determine, ultimately — as they have in the past, working with DNR foresters and non-game managers, among others — which timber gets cut and when.

Of particular concern, the managers said, are oaks in Whitewater WMA and throughout the southeast.

"The problem with the new process,'' said retired DNR wildlife manager Gary Drotts, "is that previously on WMAs, wildlife managers never had a 'hard target' of timber they had to meet. Now they do. They have to produce more than 100,000 cords from WMAs annually, whether wildlife managers agree with it or not.''

Drotts is among retired DNR staff and others who have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to audit DNR management of WMAs, focusing specifically on timber cutting.

In their audit request, the retired DNR managers note that WMAs and aquatic management areas were purchased with funds derived from the sale of hunting, fishing and archery equipment. As such, the retired managers say, management on these areas is restricted to practices that primarily benefit fish and wildlife — not timber production. (The completed audit is expected soon.)

Drotts and the others also have advocated that the DNR establish overarching management plans for the WMA and AMA systems.

"Had we had such a plan in place, this new logging initiative might not have taken place,'' Drotts said.

Larry Gates, a retired southeast Minnesota DNR fisheries manager and volunteer chairman of the Southeast Landscape Committee of the Minnesota Forest Resource Council, noted in a letter he wrote to Strommen that the DNR's new timber harvest guidelines call for a 9,000-cord target harvest in southeast Minnesota, up from 4,000 cords.

"Roughly a third of which,'' Gates said, "is likely to come from wildlife lands.''

Gates added in his letter that too little funding is available to control invasive species before and after timber harvests, without which oak cuttings often end up like the one on the bluff that retired assistant wildlife manager Tangen was pointing to the other day.

"Area and regional staff are the most knowledgeable stewards of our public resources,'' Gates wrote to Strommen, adding, "What is the demand for red oak, the dominant harvest species, in the southeast Minnesota market?

"[Our committee] completed a market study … and found weak demand for increased supply of red oak.''