One side says valuable black walnut trees in Minnesota state parks shouldn't be left to age and rot -- they should be cut down and sold for much-needed state revenue.
The other side says our state parks have never been commercially logged, and they have long been managed to let nature take its course, not maximize profits.
A bill requiring the Department of Natural Resources to commercially log trees in two southeastern Minnesota state parks, which officials say would be unprecedented, has sparked the debate and galvanized park supporters. The bill will be voted on next week in the full Minnesota House.
It orders the DNR to harvest black walnut and "timber resources suitable for harvest'' in Frontenac and Whitewater state parks, and use profits to help fund the park system. Bill supporters say the state can't afford to let valuable trees rot in the woods. Opponents say the measure is shortsighted and would open up state parks to commercialization. The DNR opposes the bill.
"We don't do commercial logging in our state parks,'' Courtland Nelson, DNR parks director, said Friday. "We do timbering in our state forests. Our goals are to protect and perpetuate the natural resources in our parks.'' The DNR sometimes cuts trees in parks for management reasons, he said. The idea is to try to return them to pre-settlement conditions.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the bill is "outrageous. It borders on crazy.
"So are we going to log the big pines at Itasca [State Park]? Red oak and walnut trees are jewels of the southeast region. The last thing we want to do is log them out of our parks.''
But Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who added the logging amendment to a large environmental finance bill, said it makes sense.
"The alarmists say you're going to clear-cut the whole thing, but that's not what the amendment is,'' he said. "It's simply to harvest the merchantable timber. It would leave 99 percent of trees intact. This is something we have to consider in the economic times we are in. We can't afford to watch our state assets rot.''
Drazkowski said constituents who live near the parks told him they are frustrated by seeing valuable black walnut trees going to waste. Black walnut is used in veneers, furniture and gun stocks and is considered very valuable. Drazkowski said a resident told him he's been offered $5,000 for a tree. "There may be hundreds of thousands of dollars of value there,'' Drazkowski said.
Nelson said the DNR doesn't know how many black walnut trees are in the two parks, but that an assessment will be done. The trees are native to the region.
"It wouldn't be a windfall for parks,'' said Bob Meier, DNR legislative director. He said there aren't a large number of black walnut trees in the parks. And it would be a one-time infusion of cash, possibly less than $100,000.
Morse said the old-growth trees are an important attraction for park visitors. "These should not be sold off to fix a short-term state budget problem,'' he said.
"We think it's a really bad idea,'' said Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, a nonprofit group that advocates for the state's parks and trails. "Our parks are places where we are trying to take care of national resources, not trying to commercialize them.''
Two House committees passed the bill, HF1010, on Wednesday, and it now goes to the full House for a vote next week. The Senate version differs substantially and doesn't include the logging amendment, which means a House-Senate conference committee likely will hash out the differences.
"This is a discussion worth having,'' said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, which passed the bill. He voted for it, but said the logging amendment may need refining.
"This just can't be about economics, absolutely not,'' he said. "But we can't not pay attention to economics, either.''