When 114 red pines were bulldozed inside Red Lake Wildlife Management Area last year to create new habitat, infuriated Minnesota timber industry officials denounced the trees' felling as "destruction" and a "slap in the face."
"When viable timber harvests are withheld, loggers do not work," a Minnesota Forest Industries and Minnesota Timber Producers Association official wrote to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) commissioner's office.
The trade groups also questioned whether Gretchen Mehmel, the longtime DNR biologist who managed the wildlife area, should keep her job.
Mehmel admitted her red-pine decision might have been mistimed because of a seasonal insect threat. But she pleaded with her DNR bosses to stand up to the forest products industry, the state's fifth-largest manufacturing sector. But they didn't. Bowing to pressure, DNR executives sold the habitat trees as "salvage" and loggers hauled them away for saw milling.
"Forestry holds sway over everything else right now," said Martha Minchak, a fellow DNR wildlife manager who recently retired. "Wildlife management is being sacrificed for timber harvest."
Mehmel and Minchak are among wildlife managers, conservation leaders and hunters who say Minnesota forest habitat goals intended to benefit critters ranging from moose to bobcats, woodcock to spruce grouse, are being shoved aside to satisfy commercial timber interests.
The shift to intensified logging on state land started in 2018 with the Sustainable Timber Harvest initiative, a public-private pact between DNR and the forest products industry whereby the state agreed to increase and stabilize timber availability at the urging of timber producers. Selling timber on state lands is part of the DNR Forestry Division's mission. But the push for more wood has stirred infighting between DNR wildlife field staff and agency executives charged with administering the logging plan.
At the midpoint of the 10-year program, the DNR is offering 870,000 cords per year of merchantable timber, up from 800,000 cords. Access to the raw material supports more than 63,000 Minnesota jobs — mostly rural — in logging, trucking, milling and manufacturing.
Critics of the intensified logging plan say it takes control of the ax away from local wildlife managers on the 23% of Minnesota forest acres owned by the state and managed by the DNR Forestry and Fish and Wildlife divisions.
Especially vulnerable, the critics say, are hundreds of tracts of public hunting and wildlife viewing properties known as Wildlife Management Areas, or WMAs. By law, these must be managed "for the production of wildlife, for public hunting, fishing, and trapping" and other recreation such as foraging and photography. Logging is permitted, but only as a tool to shape wildlife habitat desired by wildlife managers, hunters and other WMA users.
Steve Thorne, former DNR deputy commissioner, said the agency has turned that principle on its head by mandating that a predetermined volume of timber must be produced on WMAs regardless of its effect on wildlife.
Jaime Edwards, wildlife manager at Whitewater WMA east of Rochester, agrees. "It's old-school forestry being shoved down everyone's throats," she said.
"It's a battle right now over trees on WMAs," said Mehmel, who retired this spring.
Mehmel, Edwards and Minchak were among 28 DNR wildlife employees who publicly challenged Commissioner Sarah Strommen in 2019 to change the new timber plan. Their widely circulated memo to Strommen said it was scientifically dishonest to say the plan was good for wildlife.
Still, there's been no letup in the new logging regimen. Strommen said this week that the DNR is in the midst of a five-year review of the plan. "We can make changes and we will make changes if they are needed," she said.
Federal agency steps in
DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt said acceptance of the intensified logging plan "is not happening as gracefully as it could." He is aware some members of his field staff view the new system as inflexible and want more backup from him when they say wildlife habitat is being sacrificed for cordage targets.
"It's certainly more deliberate," Olfelt said of the new system.
Previously, he said, field managers could defer cutting of certain timber stands. Under the new plan, if managers reject a computer-selected stand targeted for cutting, they must offer a substitute of the same size and type. He said the system pushes managers to look hard at their landscapes.
Rejecting criticism that industry is driving the bus, Olfelt said: "It's not [only] about cords and boards. We've asserted forever it's for wildlife purposes. You can't just say no all the time."
DNR Forestry timber sales supervisor Jon Drimel said the state is reaching its new target consistently without going over. The volume increase and length of the agreement signal a stable supply to industry, he said.
All land types, including WMAs, Drimel said, are absorbing the increase proportionately, adding that WMAs are given special harvest considerations — such as leaving more trees standing than usual. State forests, controlled by DNR Forestry, make up the largest harvest pool, he said.
"The goal is to stimulate the market," Drimel said. "It seems like we've met the intent."
Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, last year banned the DNR from touching trees on 86,000 acres of wildlife lands Up North. The so-called Land Utilization Program (LUP) acres — established in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt — are in the sustainable timber harvest pool as part of Red Lake WMA.
Even though LUP lands are governed by wildlife-first tenets, Mehmel said her DNR bosses pressured her to offer sales of LUP timber purely for economic reasons. Following orders, she listed the trees for potential sale, she said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded with its moratorium.
Forest variety gives spice to wildlife
Managing forests for diverse wildlife requires flexible timber-harvesting methods to maintain a mix of older and younger trees of various species, interspersed with gaps and edges. Here are five forest animals and the habitats that suit them.
Source: DNR Forest Habitat Supervisor Ted Dick
Aspen in small blocks with young stands for brood rearing next to older forest with buds for food, horizontal logs for drumming and sufficient cover for nesting.
Mixed stands that include older aspen alongside conifers that catch snow and provide mobility against predators. Nearby, deer need openings of younger forests for browse.
Messy, older forests with coarse, woody debris, tipped-over trees for denning and edges or openings that contain fruits and berries.
Big range of older forest, conifers included, with fallen trees and trunks large enough to provide cavities for denning and food storage. Martens share habitat similarities with fishers, another small furbearer.
Like martens and fishers, wood ducks are cavity nesters. They require older trees of sizable circumference, located close to water.
James Graham, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land manager, told the Star Tribune the LUP timber sale moratorium won't be lifted "until there can be clearly demonstrated wildlife benefits."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials also have placed unprecedented conditions on DNR timber sales on WMAs. The wildlife areas are purchased in part with millions of dollars in excise tax revenues on hunting and fishing gear, and restrictions on these funds require that logging and other management on the areas be done fundamentally to benefit wildlife and users, not foresters.
The Blue Goose Alliance, a watchdog group of retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, has commended the federal officials for confronting the DNR about changes needed in WMA management. In a letter earlier this year to the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Bloomington, the group urged the agency to go a step further and withhold funds from the DNR.
"They [the DNR] are stalling and must be told to resolve the situation without further delay,'' wrote the late Nita Fuller, Midwest representative for the alliance.
Impact on deer hunting
Another watchdog group, WMA Stewardship Network, is made up largely of retired DNR foresters and wildlife managers. Former DNR forester Craig Sterle, past president of Minnesota's Izaak Walton League, and Thorne, the former DNR deputy commissioner, belong to the group. They say the DNR's intensified logging program abandons the agency's previous commitment to preserving older timber stands for the good of wildlife.
At Red Lake WMA, with 127,000 forested acres, Mehmel projects that the intensified logging program will greatly reduce mature or older stands of aspen, balsam and white spruce. By 2028, old stands of that type will decrease to 11% from 20% in 2017, she said.
For aspen in particular, the computer model targets cutting when trees are 40 years old — the prime "economic" rotation age. And while the program allows aspen to reach 60 years of age on WMAs, that's still not old enough in slow-growing northern forests, critics say, to benefit cavity nesters such as wood ducks, marten and fisher.
"As the amount of older forest diminishes and the amount of younger forest grows … the amount of cutting must be reduced," Mehmel said. "Timber quotas are unraveling the work of the last 40 years or more."
Minchak and retired DNR forester Jim Kelley recently toured DNR-controlled forests with a Star Tribune photographer. At Cloquet Valley State Forest north of Duluth, they admired previously logged stands of red pine and white pine that were carefully thinned in past decades to leave majestic canopy trees. Minchak said those features are doomed for harvest according to the computer model.
Tom Rusch, another recently retired DNR wildlife manager, also sees cordage demands supplanting good wildlife planning. He said industry's desire for intensive logging at economically beneficial rotation ages is sound business, it's just not good for wildlife.
Northern deer hunters are living with the results, he said. When DNR experts wrongly estimated the annual statewide deer harvest could reach 200,000 whitetails, they were expecting a bigger piece of the pie to come from Up North. But intensive logging under the Sustainable Timber Harvest initiative reduces the amount of older timber stands — aspen and conifers together — that previously provided good winter cover for deer, Rusch said.
Young aspen forest is good for deer and grouse, but both species need a mix of young and older forest in close proximity, including forage openings and dense conifers that catch snow, Rusch said.
"You can't just keep cutting," he said. "There's a balance and we've gone beyond that."
The DNR's own wildlife researcher, Glenn DelGiudice, has been pinpointing the importance of mixed forest habitat to reduce winter mortality for deer Up North. His findings are derived from precise GPS tracking collars and one of his study areas is Elephant Lake, a historically large northern Minnesota deer wintering area where the whitetail population has dropped as older timber stands have been sold by DNR for harvest.
DelGiudice said his research ultimately will allow DNR wildlife managers to more accurately identify forest habitat that benefits deer populations. He said those managers no longer will struggle at the negotiating table with foresters when describing "this is what the deer are using."
Olfelt, the DNR Fish and Wildlife director, conceded his division, as a whole, lacks clearly articulated wildlife management goals and objectives. The shortcoming in some cases is decades old, he said, and has created an imbalance against the DNR Forestry Division's very specific, 10-year cordage targets.
"If we don't have clear wildlife plans in place … then of course the Fish and Wildlife Service is going to say, 'All we see is cords and boards,' " he said.
Jon Steigerwaldt, forest conservation director of the Ruffed Grouse Society, said the polarized status quo of the new timber harvest plan needs to change. For the sake of wildlife, as well as conservationists and other forest users — including the timber-products industry — more conversations are needed to foster active management that leads to continuous availability of young, middle-aged and older stands of pine, aspen, spruce, oak and other trees.
"We should all be saying, 'How do we do this better,' " Steigerwaldt said.