– The Pine City High School trap shooting team has an endearing, rag-tag assortment of old shotguns compared with the high-priced firearms shouldered by many of its metro-area opponents.

That's all right with head coach George Johnson, the high school's former principal and an active member of the Pine County Thunderin' Toms, a leading Minnesota chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).

Johnson and many of the trap team's 25 assistant coaches are in the business of building character, hoping that competitive shooting becomes a bridge for kids to take up hunting and to care about the outdoors.

It's with those youngsters in mind that the Thunderin' Toms have become the leading conservation partner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in a long labor to bring back native trees to a massive blowdown area in St. Croix State Forest, northeast of Pine City.

The Toms are coming off a noteworthy year of habitat contributions, including the solicitation of $112,000 in grants for the DNR to save 500 acres of emerging mixed hardwood trees. The "patch'' includes many thousands of oaks that will provide food for wild turkeys, not to mention deer, blue jays, wood ducks, quail, raccoons, chipmunks and squirrels.

"If we didn't have this project, if you didn't help those trees along, they would just kind of disappear,'' said Jeremy Fauskee, Sandstone Area Forest Supervisor.

A July 2011 windstorm flattened 41,600 acres of the mid-sized state forest, along with swaths of nearby state park land. So devastating was the blowdown that it took several years to reopen 23 miles of forest roads, 46 miles of motorized trails and 32 miles of horse-riding and hiking trails. The forest is heavily used by off-road recreational vehicle riders, snowmobilers, hikers and horse riders.

After brokering discounted logging contracts to help clean up the tangled tree parts, Fauskee said the emphasis of the recovery was to plant and seed native white pine, red pine and jack pine.

On a smaller area of the forest floor, various oak species, maples and other hardwoods were sprouting on their own. But with the DNR's windstorm recovery budget tapped out, the hardwoods were in danger of getting choked out by underbrush and faster-growing aspen. That's where the Thunderin' Toms came in.

Using $10,000 from NWTF's so-called national "superfund'' as seed money, the local chapter successfully attracted a Minnesota Conservation Partners Legacy grant for $101,750 from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund. The group, led by 12 to 24 active members, then hired a contractor to run power brush saws to clear competing vegetation for 7 feet around each sapling. Those so-called "releases'' will give the young trees a chance, eventually, to create their own protective canopy.

"Because the contractor came in under the expected cost, we will likely do nearly 500 acres,'' NWTF Regional Biologist Rich Horton reported last month at the Thunderin' Toms' Hunting Heritage Banquet in Hinckley, a fundraiser attended by more than 270 supporters.

Fauskee of the DNR said the agency also received financial help to re-establish the forest from Woodchuck USA, a private company, and from the National Arbor Day Foundation. But NWTF "has been our biggest partnership,'' he said.

"It's helped us piece the landscape back together,'' Fauskee said. "This has all worked so well.''

Warren Dufresne, chapter president of the Thunderin' Toms, said the conservation project has boosted local enthusiasm for habitat work — even to the point where active members now identify themselves lightheartedly as "tree huggers.''

"We can make an impact on a countywide basis,'' Dufresne said. "We can have a measurable impact.''

The club's oak tree preservation commitment also has taken volunteers afield with DNR forestry crews near Brook Park, Rutledge and Sturgeon Lake. State Wildlife Management Areas near those towns have trees in need of tending. The volunteer duties have included spraying saplings with a liquid solution that discourages browsing by deer and rabbits.

More recently, NWTF members have invested their own money and spare time to place deer-exclusion cages around emerging, DNR-planted trees on a would-be oak savannah west of Pine City.

Last week, Johnson, the trap team coach, paid a visit to the stand of oaks — some standing as high as 8 feet and others only knee high. In the distance, a rooster pheasant cackled from behind a mature plantation of birch trees.

Johnson then gave a nod to a motto of the Thunderin' Toms: Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.

"We'll never see this savannah, but you hope that the next generations will,'' he said.