Seeing the Forest for the Trees: The sustainability of Minnesota’s logging industry

A pine forest // Photo courtesy the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

A pine forest // Photo courtesy the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

For many Minnesotans, the exclamation “Timber!” evokes images of a bygone era when solemn bearded men clad in plaid hefted saws and axes and felled towering pines in the depths of a northern forest at the end of the 19th century. Fewer Minnesotans may understand that the harvesting of timber and forest products is still a vital and much-debated part of the state’s 21st century economy, environment, and way of life.

Minnesota is home to 52 native tree species that grow in the state’s 17.4 million acres of forests, which are home to a large variety of the state’s wildlife. These forests encompass areas of recreation and industry, resonate with history, and are vital to the state’s identity. Located predominantly in the northern region of the state, 4.2 million acres of Minnesota’s forests are administered by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

On March 1, 2018 the DNR released its Sustainable Timber Harvest Determination report, which set the state’s timber harvest at 870,000 cords annually as part of a new 10-year timber harvest management plan. (One cord is equal to 128 cubic feet of lumber.) The report’s 870,000 cord figure is the result of work that began in 2016 when Governor Dayton asked the department if a timber harvest of 1 million cords in the state managed forests was sustainable. This new figure represents an 8.75 percent increase in timber harvest on DNR-administered lands from previous years, and also includes a special five-year initiative of 30,000 additional cords of ash and tamarack to harvest in response to invasive emerald ash borer and eastern larch beetle threat.

The report was produced by the DNR with a variety of scientific analyses, public commentary and discussions with the forest industry and conservation organizations. Key stakeholders included DNR staff from Forestry, Wildlife, and Ecological and Water Resources, private timber industry members, federal staff from U.S. Forest Service, University of Minnesota officials, and representatives from environmental groups such as Audubon Minnesota and the Izaak Walton League. A third party independent and out-of-state contractor, Mason, Bruce & Girard (Portland, Oregon), was also hired to provide analysis of the state of Minnesota’s forests.

In their analysis, the Minnesota DNR states that it “strives to provide a stable, quality source of wood fiber to industry in a manner that is sustainable and conserves Minnesota’s state forest resources into the future.” This balancing act between industry and environmental conservation is one that resonates deeply with many in Minnesota due to the breadth, scope, and meaning that the state’s forests encompass.

By the 1830s, prior to statehood, the timber stands on Dakota and Ojibwe land attracted the attention of early American lumbermen. In 1839, the first sawmill in what would become Minnesota was established in Marine on St. Croix along the banks of the St. Croix River. Loggers focused on the abundant stands of pines, and the industry grew along with the state well past its 1858 declaration of statehood.

In 1900, at the peak of Minnesota’s logging industry, over 4.7 million cords of timber were harvested. Soon thereafter the logging industry began to decline in Minnesota as the high-prized old growth pine forests had been depleted and loggers began to look to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere for timber. By the 1930s, logging had dropped to harvests of less than 500,000 cords a year and the final logging drive in Minnesota would take place in 1937. By the latter half of the 20th century, the state’s timber harvest was growing as wood fiber industries, such as pulp for paper and prefabricated building materials, started entering the market. By the 1990s over 4 million cords were being harvested across the state, and in 1995 the state legislature passed the Sustainable Forest Resources Act to create a sustainable and long term industry for forestry practices on state lands and curb over-harvesting. Reported by the Minnesota DNR via 2014 figures, the forestry industry is responsible for 62,400 jobs with an estimated $17.1 billion economic impact.

Forest replanting // Photo courtesy Minnesota DNR

Forest replanting // Photo courtesy Minnesota DNR

When it comes to managing the state-owned and -administered forests, DNR officials Andrew Arends (Forest Operations & Management Section Manager) and Doug Tillma (Timber Sales Program Supervisor) emphasized the importance and nuances to managing “everyone’s land.” Forest products, they stated, make up the fifth-largest industry for the state of Minnesota, and the recent Sustainable Timber Harvest Determination report states that a harvest target of 870,000 cords is a good number to ensure sustainable, healthy, and vigorous forests. The DNR felt this figure, instead of 1 million cords, “strikes an appropriate balance between wildlife, biodiversity, forest industry, clean water, and recreation” on DNR-managed state forest lands.

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The DNR staff also stressed that less than one percent of the state-managed forests, around 42,000 acres of the 4.2 million total acreage, are harvested each year. When these state lands are harvested, by statute, the land must be reseeded or replanted or allowed to naturally regenerate. The DNR’s Division of Forestry also selects which stands of timber are ready to be harvested based on the different trees in certain stands/plots along with other factors, such as the ages of the trees in these stands. In total, some 800 harvesting tracts are sold by the DNR in a public competitive auction process. This is part of the work that the 150 staff members of the DNR’s Division of Forestry is responsible for in their effort of managing healthy forests across the state.

Across the state there are individuals who contend that the DNR’s harvest target of 870,000 cords is too rosy of an outlook. From the Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League, a national environmental conservation organization founded in 1922, president Craig Sterle and conservation issues program director Don Arnosti voiced concerns regarding the DNR’s report. Sterle, a retired DNR forester, and Arnosti emphasized their view that the report does not adequately take into account the looming effects of climate change. Sterle sees global warming and climate change as having a “ripple effect” that is changing the forests of Minnesota and how we interact with them.

Seedlings for reforestation // Photo courtesy Minnesota DNR

Seedlings for reforestation // Photo courtesy Minnesota DNR

For one, Sterle notes that warmer and shorter winters prevent logging companies from getting into tracts of black spruce and tamarack—the state-managed tracts are located in lowland marsh areas, which require deep freezes for logging companies to operate in the winter. Since 1980, Minnesota’s annual average temperature has increased at a rate of 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit per century, which leads to later freezes and earlier thaws in the winter-dependent forests in northern Minnesota. These warmer weather trends, for Sterle, make it impossible to see how logging companies will even be able to meet their target harvest of 870,000 cords. Sterle also points to studies that suggest in 50–70 years the boreal forests of spruce, fir, and jack pine will disappear from northern Minnesota entirely due to warming temperatures. Northern forests, along with their wildlife and the industries dependent upon these forest and water systems, will be forever altered.

Arnosti said he felt the DNR report was a “good study,” but that its fundamental flaw was its lack of accounting for global warming. Both Arnosti and Sterle feel the targeted harvest of 870,000 cords from Minnesota state-managed lands is a backwards-looking model and is economically driven. As forests are degraded by global warming, it’s possible that there will be added pressure on the state to lower its threshold for when a stand is ready to be harvested, leading to even greater degradation of forests.

Minnesota’s state lands are not the only areas available for harvesting, and Arnosti encourages the DNR to continue outreach programs that would help private, tribal, and industry landowners (who control 51 percent of Minnesota’s timber lands) manage their timber harvest. This could take the pressure off of the state-managed lands and allow for their forests to grow into healthy and mature forests that are so vital for wildlife in northern Minnesota. The forestry industries could also implement energy efficiency changes at their facilities to help defray costs, and in doing so lessen the pressure to extract more and more forest products and timber.

The Minnesota DNR, the logging industry, private and public citizens, and organizations are all aware of the importance of the state’s forest. They use, advocate, and interact with the woods in many different ways. As the state moves forward into a new decade of forest management, more and more Minnesotans will hopefully understand how their public forests are managed, and what can be done to ensure sustainable interaction with this Minnesotan treasure for years to come.