With their methodical spacing, uniform height and cookie-cutter shapes, the Norway pine stands planted across 85,000 acres in Minnesota are sometimes disparaged as the forest equivalents of cornfields. Even so, state foresters have spent years thinning the oldest of these groves so they might evolve gracefully into habitat for recreation and wildlife.
But now the Department of Natural Resources has rescinded a plan that would have allowed these pine stands to grow old, and instead will auction them to timber companies for clear-cutting.
DNR officials in St. Paul describe the change as a prudent response to criticism from the Legislature that their management of public parcels known as school trust lands hasn’t produced enough revenue for the state.
But some conservationists and a retired state forester view the accelerated clear-cutting as a shortsighted sellout of a DNR tradition of thinning the forests in ways that could raise cash and nurture conservation values.
“This is more about instant gratification and to hell with tomorrow,” said Dan Wilm, a DNR forester who retired four years ago.
The old policy allowed the red pine forests to age up to 120 years, with selective and partial logging, but the new policy calls for “final harvest” when the stands reach 60 to 70 years.
The shift uniquely demonstrates the agency’s divided loyalties and responsibilities — specifically its obligation to generate money for Minnesota schools.
Plantings of Norway pine, also known as red pine, on school trust lands represent just 48,000 acres out of roughly 4.2 million acres of state forest. Still, the issue is sensitive, in part because many of the stands are highly visible while others are laced with popular trails, hunting areas and campgrounds. One notable pine stand to be examined by the program now occupies 25 percent of Sand Dunes State Forest, a popular recreation area near Big Lake.
“We recognized right away there is some concern,” DNR Deputy Forestry Director Craig Schmid said in an interview. “We have to bring people along with us.”
While the affected stands are not ecological jewels, they contribute to the state’s overall woodland ecology, according to Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology.
Frelich said red pine plantations provide only a tiny fraction of the forest landscape in Minnesota. But he fears that replanting the species won’t automatically succeed: Norway pine trees are vulnerable to fungal disease and not very tolerant of climate change, Frelich said.
He also agreed with foresters who say the stands will be harvested just as they’re beginning to establish floors of rotting woody debris that spawn other life. The fallen trees and dead or dying trunks host mosses, fungi and lichens that, in turn, provide homes to insects eaten by ground animals and birds, including woodpeckers and owls.
“You are truncating the stand’s development when you clear cut at an earlier age,” Frelich said.
The internal DNR memo that announced the logging speedup called for foresters to initially select stands “that are the least controversial or off-site and avoiding stands that are of special concern.” Community education will precede clear-cutting when the harvests are more visible, Schmid said.
Schmid said the agency will also give its 17 area forest supervisors the flexibility to spare exceptionally valuable stands from going to saw mills.
But rules adopted as recently as 2012 say the DNR must give priority to financial considerations when there is an “irresolvable conflict between maximizing long-term economic return [for schools] and protecting natural resources.”
And pressure from the Legislature isn’t relenting.
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who chairs the Permanent School Fund Commission related to trust lands, said the panel supports the accelerated logging. For years, she said, the DNR lost sight of its constitutional obligation to raise forestry and mining revenues from 2.5 million acres of school lands, mostly located in northeastern Minnesota. The bulk of the property was a gift from Congress at the time of statehood for the designated benefit of schools.
The $1.1 billion trust account now earns enough interest to pay schools $28 per student, per year. Ruud said she’d like to see the payments increase.
“I’m sure [DNR officials] are interested in the school trust, but not as their main mission and focus,” Ruud said.
DNR Forestry Division Director Forrest Boe expects the new “economic rotation age” for planted red pine to generate an extra $450,000 to $680,000 annually for the permanent school lands trust account. That’s on top of the $1 million to $2 million in timber proceeds already delivered to the trust.
Boe said DNR officials “still have work to do” in explaining the way they balanced competing interests. But he defended the decision as one that fulfills the agency’s obligation to maximize long-term revenue to the trust without sacrificing “sound natural resource principles.”
In most instances, he said, the DNR will replant red pine, and the new stands will provide good winter cover for deer while the trees are young. At age 60 to 70, the forests are not yet rich in biodiversity but can provide sustainable raw material for lumber and other wood products, he said.
Meanwhile, red pine is a hot commodity for mills. Cass Forest Products in Cass Lake, Minn., just paid $290,000 for all the Norway pine on a 71-acre site just north of Crow Wing County’s town of Crosslake. Boe said the bid was 120 percent over the appraised value of the stand. Under the contract, trees that were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps at least 65 years ago will be left as 12-inch stumps.
“This change really does help when it comes to the dollars,” said Boe. He noted that the DNR recently extended the clear-cutting policy to include all red pine stands, even those not on school trust lands.
But Wilm said there’s no crystal ball to show that red pine wouldn’t become even more valuable over time. And he said the old policy of a gradual harvest — selling select trees for use as telephone poles or cabin logs — produced revenue while also improving the plantations’ ecosystems.
Wilm said the stand just purchased by Cass Forest Products had benefited from past thinnings, was ripe for more partial logging and was providing increasing habitat for birds and other animals.
Becky Marty, the DNR’s regional ecologist in Bemidji, said the clear-cutting decision sent a clear message that fiduciary responsibility takes precedence over other forest management responsibilities for the stands.
The concept is challenging to DNR field staff, she said, because it’s difficult to balance the value of final harvests against the values of wildlife, habitat, forest wildflowers, butterflies, educational opportunities and other unpriced tangibles and intangibles.
“It’s a confusing environment, and there’s a lot of concern about this” Marty said.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213