Don Bouley and his wife have lived 42 years next to the Sand Dunes State Forest near Big Lake, but the state's new policy to accelerate the clear-cutting of the forest's pine trees has sparked an outcry — from them and other neighbors — not seen in years.
Bouley was among residents who spoke Tuesday at the Sherburne County Board meeting. Commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, opposing the plan and voicing concerns about potential environmental ramifications to the popular state forest.
Cutting the forest's Norway pine, also known as red pine, before they've had time to fully take root, residents say, threatens wildlife and exposes homeowners to the effects of any future drought conditions — a primary reason why they were planted in the Dust Bowl era.
"The people back then didn't have a college education but they were smart enough to know to plant pines to slow down some of this erosion," said Bouley.
The DNR rescinded its longtime policy that allowed the pines to be selectively harvested at up to 120 years old. The new policy calls for clear-cutting the pines at 60 to 70 years old to auction them to timber companies in hopes of increasing revenue for public schools. The shift came amid criticism from some state lawmakers of the department's management of revenue from school trust land.
Currently, 70 acres in the forest meet the new criteria, said John Korzeniowski, DNR area forest supervisor. The pines will undergo a closer examination this fall and winter, he said, before harvesting in September 2016. However, harvesting could be postponed if their value was deemed to still be increasing.
In their letter, commissioners said: "The environmental impacts should be considered, not just the income that can be made off the lumber. Clearly clear-cutting will affect the wildlife that is abundant in this area."
Board Chairman Felix Schmiesing acknowledged that local officials have no authority over the state matter. But that does not appear to be preventing him and others from speaking out. Gov. Mark Dayton, state and federal representatives and the four residents who spoke at Tuesday morning's meeting were copied on the two-page letter to Forrest Boe, the DNR's forestry director.
"I can look out my backyard here and see thousands of acres of pine trees that were planted to stop this drifting sand," said Ron Geurts, a retired engineer. "Now they want to come in and cut these trees planted in the 1940s to stop that."
Located in central Sherburne County, the 11,000-acre forest has grown into a recreational destination. A nearby wildlife refuge also draws visitors. But legislators want the DNR to remember its constitutional obligation to raise forestry and mining revenue from the state's 2.5 million acres of school trust land, established by Congress to use natural resources to fund public education when Minnesota became a state in 1858. The trust's interest generates about $28 to educate each student, an amount some would like to see increased.
Craig Schmid, deputy director of the forestry division, said the DNR intends to meet with Sherburne County officials to discuss the issue. The new policy is already being implemented statewide on school trust land, he said, but foresters do have some flexibility.
"Every stand of timber is different," said Schmid. "We can certainly talk about the harvest that's going to take place there and what it looks like."