A state plan to harvest a section of beloved old-growth forest near Ely has riled some of the thousands of hikers and skiers who use it each year to experience northern Minnesota as it once was.

Foresters for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) describe the plan as routine forest management that would improve the long-term vitality of the woods.

Nearby residents, cross-country skiers and other forest ecologists question the project's necessity and are urging the DNR to hold off; the parcel includes an extensive trail system that is one of the few ways to get into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) on foot.

But there is more at stake than one small parcel of forest. Conservationists see it as an early test of how the state will manage Minnesota's northern forests now that Gov. Mark Dayton, at the urging of the forest products industry, has directed the DNR to increase timber harvests from state lands.

"I will be interested to see how the state responds," said Don Arnosti, program director for the Izaak Walton League, a leading Minnesota conservation group. "Are they grabbing every cord they can because they have to meet quotas? Or when they have a unique place, can they slow down and measure twice and cut once?"

DNR officials said that the project near the north arm of Burntside Lake is unrelated to the higher timber harvests and that it was planned before Dayton's decision. The goal is to take out one-third of the mature trees on 62 acres of forest to encourage the regeneration of long-lived pines.

"We have to start growing younger ones," said Forrest Boe, the DNR's forestry director. "So their grandkids will still be able to see big pines."

The backdrop, however, is an extensive review to determine whether the state's 3.4 million acres of commercially productive forest can handle a significant increase in annual harvesting.

Last fall, representatives from Minnesota Forest Industries met with Dayton and came away with a promise that the DNR would increase its annual harvest this year from 800,000 cords to 900,000.

Dayton also directed the agency to put together a group of forest industry officials and conservationists to study whether the state could raise the annual harvest even further — to 1 million cords. The analysis is expected by March.

Driving that review is the high cost of timber. Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, said the price for cutting an aspen tree — the most commonly harvested species in Minnesota — has gone from $25 to $35 in recent years, and appears headed to $40.

The supply from private landowners, who control a bit more than half of the forest in Minnesota, has plummeted in the last decade. Brandt and others say severe staff cuts during the state budget crunch took out most of the DNR foresters assigned to advise private landowners on how to manage their trees. As a result, the supply of wood dwindled.

This year, the Legislature appropriated money to hire back some of the DNR staff. But in the meantime, increasing the supply of timber from state-owned lands could help suppress prices. And Minnesota's forest industry needs all the help it can get to compete globally, Brandt said. During the recession, the state lost three major mills and many smaller ones.

"We felt there was an opportunity for [the] state to do more, and do it in a sustainable, responsible way," he said.

Arnosti is not so sure.

"I would say a million cords could be sustainable from a timber-only perspective — if we manage our forests like a cornfield," he said.

There is no question, foresters say, that without the wildfires that were once a natural force for regeneration, forests need to be logged. The question is how and for what purpose.

The section in Burntside State Forest is unusual because it's both old and widely used. But it illustrates the potential conflicts that could increase with a bigger harvest and the rising concern about forest management in the face of climate change.

The 62-acre section in question sits between a designated old-growth forest on the east side, which is permanently protected from logging, and the Superior National Forest on the other, which abuts the BWCA.

A network of trails meanders throughout, built decades ago by volunteers and now maintained by the staff at nearby YMCA Camp du Nord for its 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a year.

It's been cut before, most recently in the 1970s, said Dana Frame, the DNR's forestry supervisor in Tower.

But Niki Geisler, Camp du Nord director, said that with its granite outcrops and towering old pines, the woods has long been viewed as an ecologically rich and precious place for generations of campers and local residents.

"You really are in the wilderness," she said. "There are very few places we can bring our kids that feel like that."

Frame said the section was marked last year for thinning and a timber auction by the DNR's computer management program. The plan, he said, is to take out about a third of the oldest mature trees where they have formed a canopy that shades the ground, preventing the sun-loving young pines from growing up.

Instead, shade trees like balsam and maple are filling in the bottom in some areas.

"We can improve the forest and lessen the fire risk," he said. "There is a lot of good we can do."

But the DNR's mission also includes supplying the timber industry, and this would provide a logger about 500 cords of well-formed old-growth pine. The project also would require roads and trails for heavy logging equipment that would cut across the recreational trails.

Others, including retired DNR forester Kurt Rusterholz, who was for many years an old-growth forest ecologist, say that most of the pines are well spread out across rocky areas and that they are doing fine.

"I'm iffy on this," he said.

So is Jennifer Hengelfelt, a neighbor who walks the woods regularly.

"The forest has an open canopy, sunlight and multi-aged trees," she said. "It's regenerating on its own."

The DNR took at least 50 comments, which is a lot for a small harvest like this one. Some critics suggest the agency should start over with an ecological assessment, consider alternatives like horse-drawn sleds to minimize trail damage or do nothing at all.

"This one sale won't make or break anyone," Arnosti said. "But this is a real world test of management. Did they make the right call here?"

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394