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Minnesota's timber harvest has increased 60 percent since 1980, when the pulp and paper industry began multi-million dollar expansions at mills across Northern Minnesota. Concerns over the stepped-up logging have long prompted calls for improved forestry practices to protect woodland plants and wildlife. The timber industry says there has been substantial progress - but environmentalists say there have been few real reforms.
WE'RE SKIMMING 1000 FEET above the treetops. From that altitude, you can make out the varied shapes and colors of the Superior National Forest - the dark spires of evergreens and bright green puffy tops of birches and aspens. Biologist Chel Anderson looks down at the line that divides the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness, which is protected from cutting, from the rest of the Superior National Forest, which is not. The difference is stark.
Anderson: It's really obvious where the working forest - the harvestable part of the forest - ends and the wilderness begins. The wilderness here, you look out on contiguous forest, it's un-roaded. It's not fragmented.If the wilderness looks like a new green carpet, the "working forest" alongside it looks like an old, ragged one. The brown patches of recent clear-cuts look as though the carpet had worn through to the bare floor. Here and there you can see roads leading to piles of grey, downed trees.
The view from the air is eye opening - it's clear the extent of the logging is much greater than anyone would realize from the ground. Anderson, a former Forest Service employee who is now an independent-consulting biologist, is disturbed by both the amount of logging and how it's being done.
Anderson: This area up here around Greenwood Lake is a good example of how there's been just a lot of cutting, but without much attention to the landscape results.Anderson calls it the "cookie cutter" approach to forestry - uniform, 40 to 100 acre clearings - a cut, then a fringe of trees, then another cut-a-pattern extending off into the distance.
She says that approach may suit people, but it doesn't suit the wide range of animals and plants that live in the forest, from songbirds to wildflowers to worms.
Anderson: By chopping everything up into small parcels and not acknowledging that some living things need different-sized habitats and different combinations of habitats that are intact, we basically forego the opportunity to conserve these organisms.Environmentalists have long been worried about practices like these. Their concerns about the effect of intensified logging prompted the state of Minnesota to sponsor a massive study known as the Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), which was completed in 1994. The GEIS recommended changes in forestry practices, so stepped-up timber harvesting would not damage Minnesota's forest plants and wildlife. In 1995, the Minnesota legislature set up the Forest Resources Council to draw up voluntary logging guidelines, but those guidelines are still not complete. Environmentalists like Betsy Daub of Minnesota's National Audubon Society are getting tired of waiting.
Daub: Since the beginning of this process - studying and talking - it's been nine years, and we still have years ahead of us, according to the land managers, before we might visualize change on the ground, and that's a very long time. And in the meantime, our forests are suffering.Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says environmental groups are becoming more and more disillusioned with the lengthy bureaucratic workings of the forest council.
Erkel: There are certainly those in the environmental community that think that this has been the strategy all along for the forest products industry, to stretch out the process, to drag it out so that when site-level guidelines, if any, are implemented, it will be way down the road.In the meantime, Erkel and others say hundreds of thousands of acres are being logged, the vast majority of them clear-cut, without proper safeguards to protect forest plants and wildlife.
Environmentalists like Audubon's Betsy Daub say even areas identified by Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists as prime candidates for protection are being sold for timber - while the reform process grinds on.
Daub: We feel a sense of urgency. These are processes that are going to take years. So we say, "What happens in the meantime?" In the meantime, we see DNR timber sales and forest service timber sales in some of these identified special places, the best, the crown jewels of what we have left in Minnesota.Supporters of the state's current approach to forestry reform say the Forest Resources Council is a national model, a process in which varied interest groups sit down together to work out difficult solutions to highly complex problems. The council's executive director, Mike Kilgore, defends the pace of progress.
Kilgore: We're working in a collaborative mode. We're not "command and control." We are seeking approaches that bring people together and try to find common ground. And when you do that, it takes time.The timber industry also defends the consensus process. Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, a trade group of the state's largest pulp, paper, and sawmills, says even without the formal guidelines, there have been real, on-the-ground reforms in logging practices.
Brandt: Those who would suggest that forest management has been static since the GEIS, or that timber harvesting is done the same way it is today as it was 15 years ago, ought to get out of their cars and get out in the woods and take a look at what's going on.Brandt notes, for example, that 75 percent of the wood harvested in Minnesota is by certified loggers, that loggers are leaving more standing trees for wildlife habitat, and leaving buffers along streams. Loggers have also invested in new equipment to reduce soil compaction and erosion.
Gerald Rose, director of the State Department of Natural Resource's Division of Forestry, says the DNR has made major policy changes to insure that increased timber harvesting does not diminish the biological richness of the state.
Rose: We have an old-growth program. We didn't have it 11 years ago. We have an extended-rotation forest program. This stuff happened because the need evolved. As we began to harvest more intensively, it became necessary to be more deliberate in identifying opportunities to maintain these types of habitat that were going to be lost if we didn't.While there are programs in place, environmentalists say the real test of whether reforms are working is what happens to rare, biologically rich forests - places like a remote area in the Superior National Forest known as Big Lake-Seven Beaver. The site has been identified by both state and federal biologists as a prime candidate for preservation - what environmentalists like Daub would call a crown jewel.
From the air, Big Lake-Seven Beaver is a mosaic of different shades of green - wild forests surrounded by bogs, big shallow lakes, and stretches of wild rice. Biologist Chel Anderson was one of several scientists commissioned by the Forest Service and the DNR to identify places within the Superior National Forest as possible preserves. She rated Big Lakes-Seven Beaver at the top of the list because of its "exceptional" size, diversity, and lack of disturbance.
Anderson: On a landscape scale, this has the potential to be a wonderful place to see the relationships between a variety of habitats in a natural setting, and how those relationships play out in the natural world, where they're not being disturbed or fragmented.The State Department of Natural Resources plans to build a road through Big Lake-Seven Beaver to log DNR-owned land inside the potential preserve. DNR officials defend the timber sale, which was planned long before the area was identified as a valuable study site. But Anderson and other critics say the planned logging of Big Lake-Seven Beaver is a prime example of the lack of true reform.
Anderson: If public land managers aren't willing to take the steps necessary, then they should say so, not say, "We want to do ecosystem management, we want to manage the forest for all values," then not change the way they do management.The DNR's decision to sell timber in an area identified by its own study as potential preserve has been the subject of intense controversy within the agency.
One source inside the DNR puts it this way "We're talking the talk, but we're not walking the walk."
It might be argued that no one site can be a test of how a whole state reform
process is working - but if Big Lake-Seven Beaver is such a test, then Minnesota
appears to be failing.