Minnesota provides a native home to the fisher — an oversized member of the weasel family that’s agile enough to outclimb a red squirrel and one of the few animals capable of killing a porcupine.
Coveted by trappers for their luxurious, dark brown fur, these predators have made northeastern Minnesota one of their strongholds. They prosper when they can den in the cavities of mature trees and roam for miles — day and night — in the roomy understories of continuous, old-growth forest.
But under a new statewide timber-cutting plan about to be implemented by the Department of Natural Resources, the same type of stately forests favored by fishers and other wild creatures will become choice “stands” for sale to Minnesota’s wood products industry.
Opponents of the so-called Sustainable Timber Harvest have envisioned negative fallout on wildlife since the initiative was forged under Gov. Mark Dayton. The industry asked the state to increase yearly stumpage from state lands to a level of 1 million cords of wood per year. When the DNR agreed to less of an increase — 870,000 cords per year — the commitment put older stands of aspen, pine, balsam, cedar, maple, basswood, oak and other species on a more sudden track for logging.
Now, as the computer model’s first listing of targeted lands is set for release in January, a coalition of conservation groups that includes former DNR foresters and wildlife managers is campaigning to protect state wildlife management areas (WMAs) and aquatic management areas (AMAs) from tree harvests they say are at odds with nurturing wildlife.
Other animals that depend on old forest include pine martens, bears, red-shouldered hawks, wood ducks and bats.
“This whole new system is meant to feed the timber industry,’’ said Rich Staffon, a retired DNR wildlife manager now with the Izaak Walton League. “That’s not what wildlife lands should be managed for.’’
Trees in the crosshair
DNR Fish and Wildlife Director Dave Olfelt acknowledges that old aspen stands, in particular, will appear right away on the computerized list as needing to be harvested. A similar destiny awaits tracts of majestic oaks in southern Minnesota’s Whitewater WMA, he said.
But Olfelt and DNR Forestry Director Forrest Boe said that even on WMAs, it’s necessary at some point to “disturb’’ old forests in order to regenerate them. The logging can be done without violating state laws that enabled WMAs in the first place, Olfelt said. By statute, WMAs are created to protect areas with potential for wildlife production and for public hunting, fishing, trapping and other compatible outdoor recreational uses.
“There’s going to be a little short-term change, but looking forward I think this is going to be a benefit,’’ Olfelt said.
Boe and Olfelt said WMAs will be tapped for less overall stumpage under the Sustainable Timber Harvest plan than was the status quo. Since 2011, WMAs have provided an average of 130,000 cords of wood annually, or 14% of all production from state lands. Going forward, the plan projects the cutting of 104,000 cords of timber per year on WMAs, or about 12% of the state total, Boe and Olfelt said.
They’re aware of lingering doubts about the new system and Olfelt is planning for at least one public discussion. At next month’s 30th annual DNR Roundtable, an important gathering of natural resource stakeholders, he’s anticipating a session “broadly about forest management, including WMAs,’’ he said.
Forward or backward?
The Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers have been pushing for more public engagement on the issue. Greg Kvale, board member at Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said 28 wildlife managers inside the DNR who complained over the summer in an internal memo to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen have since been silenced by the agency.
In the memo, the insiders said, “We do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year timber plan is ‘beneficial to wildlife,’ especially on WMAs.’’ The memo said the DNR’s claim of an actual reduction in overall cords taken from wildlife-administered lands is based on a past period of harvest levels that were temporarily high.
The insiders’ memo called for flexibility to circumvent Sustainable Timber Harvest goals when logging would be detrimental to wildlife.
“Timber should not be considered a priority use’’ of wildlife lands, Kvale said.
Carl Haensel, northern chair of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said timber harvest decisions on all aquatic management lands that shade and protect North Shore streams and rivers should rest in the hands of the area fisheries manager — not a computer model bent on wood production.
The coalition would like Minnesota to establish a citizens’ board to provide DNR guidance on the management of the state’s 1,300 WMAs and AMAs.
“It’s backward to have WMA management driven by a statewide timber harvest model instead of a local wildlife plan,’’ said Gary Drotts, who retired from the DNR in Brainerd after a 39-year career in wildlife.
Not only will WMAs lose old-growth forest under the new timber harvest program, but the computer model will shorten the so-called “rotation age’’ of trees — the age at which they will be cut again for sale to mills, Drotts said.
Rick Horton, director of forest policy for Minnesota Forest Industries, said opposition to the DNR harvest plan ignores the fact that the state’s target was scaled down from 1 million cords to 870,000 cords to address wildlife concerns. Moreover, he said, the entirety of Minnesota forests (not just state timberlands) are getting bigger and older on average -- not younger.
Minnesota WMAs have long been utilized for wood production along with state forest land, other state property, county woodlands and state-managed federal lands. In the case of WMAs, the logging contracts have been a welcomed tool to create multiple habitat types and regenerate young forest. Deer, grouse and other wildlife benefit from forests in the sapling stage.
But in winter, deer need the kind of thermal cover provided by older, mixed conifers. Until now, WMA managers could insist on the survival of such stands. But those are the types of wildlife cover likely to pop up on the new computer model as ready to cut, said Craig Sterle, a retired DNR forester from the Cloquet area who is now president of the Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League.
Sterle said the new quota system and stand-selection process will have the state cutting lots of timber just as it reaches the age where it begins to provide wildlife benefits as a mature forest.
“This burning need for cords is pushing the process,’’ he said.
Conservation groups and DNR insiders aren’t the only observers concerned about Minnesota’s stepped-up logging. Jim Graham, manager of Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, said he has asked the DNR for extra information on wildlife plans on 82,000 acres of state-managed federal land linked to Red Lake Wildlife Management Area. Minnesota’s biggest WMA is in the process of writing its own 10-year management plan and Graham wants to be sure the timber harvest plans are in line with long-term wildlife interests.
It’s important under federal stipulations that wildlife species such as fishers and martens have older forest, Graham said. He needs to know what the state-managed federal lands are going to look like 10 years from now.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,’’ Graham said. “Just because timber is renewable it doesn’t mean everything is going to pop right back up.’’
Olfelt said completion of the Red Lake WMA management plan is “taking longer than it should.’’ Questions about future timber harvest have been part of the process.
“We need to take the time to get it right,’’ Olfelt said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Charlie Wooley met in September with Strommen and other DNR leaders. He said his office was assured at the meeting that the new timber harvest won’t undermine wildlife-specific management priorities on state lands that are boosted by federal dollars.
Minnesota receives about $35 million a year from federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. Wherever those dollars are spent to acquire or manage wildlife habitat, Wooley said, “Wildlife is going to benefit when the dust settles.’’
He said his agency audits states for compliance, but that he doesn’t have concerns about Minnesota.
“If there’s a concern, I will talk to them,’’ Wooley said.