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Logging to the Limit
By Mary Losure
October 2, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

One of the latest attempts to end the decades-long controversy over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a plan to increase its size, in exchange for allowing more motors in it. The bill, sponsored by Senator Paul Wellstone, has gained little support, but the move to set aside more wilderness has focused new attention on timber-cutting around the BWCA. Environmental groups say forests that haven't been cut since the early part of this century are now being logged all around the border of the million-acre wilderness.

IN HIS OFFICE IN ST. PAUL, Don Arnosti sits at a table covered with aerial photos of the BWCA. He says - viewed from the air - it's clear what's happening:

Arnosti: We can see the boundary of the wilderness is sculpted out in the form of recent clear cuts. And when you look at the photos, you can see a complete removal of the forest cover in many instances - right up the designated boundary.
Arnosti, the Minnesota Director of the National Audubon Society, says when his group began working with Senator Wellstone's office to try to find areas around the BWCA to set aside as wilderness, Audubon staffers were surprised to find how many remote areas already were slated for cutting.
Arnosti: In some instances, we learned that just two years ago, the DNR opened up logging in this area by offering for sale a number of areas that were miles beyond any existing roads.
Exact figures on the amount of logging around the BWCA are hard to come by. The land is a patchwork of federal, state, local government, and private ownership. And there is no central source for figures on the total amount of cutting. In addition, timber sales are set up under long-range plans that often overlap, making it difficult for forest managers to say just how much is being cut in a given year.

The long-range picture is somewhat clearer. Around 60 percent of the state and federal land managed for timber in northeast Minnesota is covered with trees that are more than 50 years old - many of them aging aspens that grew back after the massive logging spree that swept across northeast Minnesota at the turn of the century. Current plans call for cutting down around half that old timber to achieve what foresters see as a better balance of old and young forest. Foresters call this "changing the age class distribution" of the forest. Critics like Ray Fenner of the Superior Wilderness Action Network put it more bluntly.

Fenner: I don't know if you've ever seen a clear-cut, but it looks like a nuclear bomb hit it. The Forest Service's classification for that is "bringing it into a young forest." You go out and see a clear-cut, it looks like a bomb hit it. To the Forest Service, that's a young forest. They've taken it from an older class to a young class.
Fenner lists off the names of the recent controversial sales near the border of the Boundary Waters: Little Alphie, the Lullaby, the Bear Cub, the Thunder Horse, Cold Springs Two.
Fenner: We're seeing increasing pressure throughout Superior National Forest. It's almost like their ringing the BWCA with clear-cuts.

Audio: Boat under

Fenner: If you look back now, right through that area there, right behind us in the boat, and the eagles' nest is on the right - those trees will all be gone on that rise.

Doug Wallace has a summer cabin on Lake Vermillion, west of the Boundary Waters. It's accessible only by boat. There is unbroken forest all around - most of it untouched since the area was last logged 80 or 90 years ago. Scattered white pines that survived turn-of-the-century lumberjacks are now tall trees, their sculpted branch tops reaching high above the birch and aspen that have regrown around them.
Audio: Raven
This spring, Wallace and other cabin owners in the area learned the State Department of Natural Resources plans to open the area to logging, leaving a fringe of trees along the lakeshore. Wallace says the forest should be left alone. He says as the aspen die of old age, the forest will naturally return to the towering pine forest it once was. Hiking through the woods, he points out young pine trees growing up from seed from the big old pines.
Wallace: Look at all the white pine, red pine that's coming up. And that's been thrown by those two super high big red pines right there. Magnificent, this is going to be magnificent. If it is left un-messed around, within another 50 years it's going to be incredible.
All around the Boundary Waters Wilderness and throughout northeast Minnesota, there are now hundreds of thousands of acres of old aspen like the forest surrounding Doug Wallace's cabin. Environmentalists like Wallace argue these old forests are just at the point where they will start to give way to longer-lived species of trees. They say at least SOME of the old aspen forests should be left alone to naturally develop into mature, wild forests like those that were here before European settlement. But foresters say the land needs to be managed, not left alone.

Department of Natural Resources forester Mike Magnusen says, without some sort of disturbance - like logging or fire - the old aspen will never give way to the towering pine forests Doug Wallace envisions.

Audio: Squirrels

Magnusen: Here on this hillside, again with all the pine, as far as you can see coming up. That's our goal, that's what we're looking for the timber management.

As Magnusen walks through an area miles to the east of Lake Vermillion, he sees as a good example of the kind of management the old aspen lands need. The area was cut for timber 25 years ago. In some places, foresters carefully left young white pines that are now groves of big trees with sunlight slanting through them. Other spots were clear-cut and now are covered with healthy stands of Christmas-tree-sized evergreens.
Magnusen: This is at the edge of the cut-over. What we're looking at off in the distance is actually the BWCA wilderness boundary. Twenty-five years after our management, I don't know too many people would argue about this spot. It looks great!
Magnusen and many other foresters say the best way to bring back the white pine forests of old is to plant them after logging off the aspen. They say aspen is a valuable resource that should be used, not allowed to rot and fall down.

The level of cutting in Minnesota's vast tracts of deteriorating aspen will affect the character of the forest - what it looks like, what kind of wildlife it supports - for decades to come. But John Pastor, a forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, says - despite all the rhetoric - neither side has the scientific information needed to find the best approach.

Pastor: What happens to an aspen stand when the mature aspen deteriorates is complicated. There has never been a study where anyone has followed. Foresters are arguing with environmentalists, and there's this huge amount of ignorance.
Pastor says foresters are developing increasingly sophisticated techniques that in many cases can work better than just leaving the land alone. Still, he says, it's best to move cautiously.
Pastor: I would tend to err on the side - given our ignorance of how the forest works up here - I would tend to err on the side of not over-cutting, which is cutting lightly. Until we figure out what is happening. Because, as you go up here and increase our cut by another 50 percent, you've made a permanent decision that has permanent consequences, and there's no going back from that.
Increasingly, state and federal timber managers will be asking the public to weigh in on decisions that will determine the face of Minnesota's forests in years to come. Officials at both of Minnesota's national forests - the Chippewa and the Superior - are currently holding public meetings around the state to help managers draw up new plans to decide how much timber should be cut, and where.