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Clear-Cutting Changes Wildlife Habitat
By Mary Losure
November 18, 1998
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Part of Our State, Our Forests

At the turn of the century, much of Minnesota's northern forest was leveled by logging and massive fires. Now the state is in the midst of a second round of cutting to supply new and expanded mills that have sprung up since the early 1980s. In the years since the mill expansions began, timber harvesting in Minnesota has increased more than 60 percent. The annual level of logging is now around half of the seven million cords that were cut each year during the state's Paul Bunyan era.

AS FORESTS THAT HAVE GROWN BACK SINCE THE FIRST massive logging are cut again, environmentalists - and many biologists - are concerned that birds and wildlife that depend on older, diverse forests will suffer.

You can see the changes in Minnesota's forests near Cash Luck's cabin near Remer in northern Minnesota. Luck, a former schoolteacher, bought her land there in 1968. In those days, she says, there was logging in the woods, but it was different than it is now.

Luck: They would select a certain species, cut it with a chain saw, and move it out with a light skidder. Now what I'm seeing is semis in our forest. I counted at one time 35 going down Highway Six out here within five hours, loaded to the gills. I go out and I watch how it's being cut today. I see huge machines, heavy machines, feller bunchers, heavy skidders cutting everything off.
A few miles from her cabin, Luck walks through a leveled area the size of several football fields. Only a few dozen trees are still standing. Clear-cutting methods like these account for more than 80 percent of timber harvesting in Minnesota.
Luck: Originally, I was not against logging. Now that I've walked these forests and seen what's going on, I'm pulling back from walking them anymore because it is too disheartening.
In her cabin, Luck has a copy of a Sierra Club book called "Clear-cut," with photos of vast, denuded landscapes, many of them in the western United States. The logging in Minnesota doesn't look like the Sierra Club pictures, though. It's in much smaller patches, less visible in the state's flat terrain. Cuts near highways or along spots frequented by tourists are hidden behind corridors of trees called "beauty strips." But Betsy Daub of the National Audubon Society says Minnesota's North Woods are slowly changing as older forests with a mixture of different types of trees are clear-cut and converted into young stands dominated by one species - aspen. Aspen is a fast-growing tree that sprouts from stumps left after clear-cutting.
Daub: Aspen's a perfectly good tree, (but) the proliferation of it across the northern landscape means we are simplifying our forest, and we are making it a much younger forest than it historically has been. The concern is what happens to all the plants and animals who have evolved over time with a much more diverse and older forest.
An older forest with many different types and sizes of trees looks different from the young, uniform stands that sprout after clear-cutting. It also sounds different.

At dawn in the Chippewa National Forrest, wildlife biologist Rita Hawroot listens intently to the birdsong all around her. This particular site is a mature, diverse forest - old aspen with birch, fir, and some maple mixed in. The birds calling here are typical of that kind of diverse habitat.

Hawroot: There's a red eyed vireo, behind me, they're really common. That bird right there, it sounds like, "Here I am, look at me" right there, and he's within 100 meters.
A few miles away is a site that was clear-cut 15 years ago. It's grown back to a brushy, uniform thicket of 10 to 15-foot-tall aspen trees - what foresters call a "regenerating stand." Hawroot notes down songs from a few bird species that like shrubby habitats. But most of the birdsong seems to come from outside the aspen thicket.
Hawroot: So what I'm hearing is a lot of birds that are outside 100 meters, that aren't actually within the regenerating stand.

Mary Losure (Reporter): I'm noticing the birds here seem much more distant, they're far away.

Hawroot: Right. And they're probably singing from the mature forest or somewhere outside this stand of regenerating aspen. Yeah, its much quieter here.
The question now is whether so many of Minnesota's older, diverse forests are being cut down that wildlife that depends on older forests will suffer.

Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, a trade group representing the state's biggest pulp, paper, and lumber mills, dismisses the idea there is too much logging.

Brandt: In the state of Minnesota we grow approximately 7.42 million cords of wood a year. We presently harvest 3.8 million cords of wood. The harvest level is substantially below the growth.
Brandt says the level of timber harvesting is still so low - and Minnesota has so many trees - that logging is not making a dent in the state's older forest habitat. He cites projections that show the area of the state's older forest will actually increase, despite the cutting, because so many middle-aged trees are being left untouched to grow into older forests.
Brandt: Harvesting occurs on a little over 1 percent of the acres of forest land in any given year, so while harvesting has increased in the past 20 or 25 years, we believe that it's been done responsibly and continues to be done responsibly, and that there is an opportunity for additional increases on into the future.
Environmentalists disagree. They say the industry's assurances that the area of older forest will increase are based on shaky models and faulty projections. University of Minnesota forest ecologist John Pastor says while logging 1 percent of forest land a year might not sound like much, the vast majority of that is clear-cutting. Clear-cutting 1 percent of the forest a year means 10 percent in 10 years - and half of it in 50 years. Under that scenario, huge tracts of older, diverse forests will be lost.
Pastor: What we're taking about is taking all this diversity of forest type and converting it back to young-aspen stands at the rate of 1 percent of the acreage a year, and that's a lot. If it's 1 percent a year going into those types of young forests, over a long period of time, much of the forest gets converted to younger age classes.
Pastor says given the industry's current practice of cutting trees at younger and younger ages, once those stands are clear-cut, they will be cut again before they can mature - so those clear-cut acres will not revert back to older, diverse forests.

It's not easy to tell which side is right - the industry or its critics. There are no up-to-date forest inventories that show clearly whether the composition of Minnesota's forests is changing.

Both sides often cite a massive state-sponsored study completed in 1994, but its reams of tables and statistics can selectively be used to support widely different interpretations of what's actually going on in Minnesota's forests.

The issue of whether the state is losing too much of its older forest has deeply divided the State Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible both for making timber sales on state land, and for protecting the state's wildlife.

Some DNR staff say there is little cause for worry. The younger forests left behind after clear-cutting provide good habitat for popular game species, notably moose and white-tailed deer. Deer populations have been thriving, in part due to the increase in clear-cutting.

But others in the agency express deep concern. "Something's got to give," says one DNR biologist who declined a taped interview.

Gretchen Mehmel, Red Lake Area wildlife manager for the DNR, says foresters and biologists make the best decisions they can when deciding where to log and how many stands of older trees to leave for wildlife - but it's a hard call.

Mehmel: There's so much that's unknown. And I just hope when I drive by a stand when I used to ... When I did a birding survey, I heard a wood thrush, and it's been cut, and you can't hear the wood thrush call any more. I just hope we're making the correct decisions and there are other areas where the wood thrush can go and eventually come back to that stand when that stand grows up again.
The agency has set up timbering guidelines to try to protect older forests, but it's unclear how well they're working. Because there is so much uncertainty over the effect of logging on Minnesota wildlife, the DNR is overseeing an eight-year study of Minnesota's forest birds in logged and unlogged areas. The study has shown no clear overall patterns. Its usefulness is limited because it applies only to the most abundant species, since two-thirds of Minnesota's forest birds are too rare to accurately monitor.

University of Minnesota forest ecologist John Pastor worries that by the time scientists can find out for sure whether stepped-up timber harvests are hurting the state's wildlife, it will be too late. And he says the wider question is not what level of logging wildlife can live with, but what kind of forest Minnesotans want to see in the future.

Pastor: Do we want to see forests that are predominantly 30-years-old or younger? I think what people should do is go look at a 30-year-old forest and see what it looks like. There's lots of it around. It's thick aspen, maybe six-inches around and not much underneath it. Think of the whole of northern Minnesota in this kind of forest. Is this what we want to bequeath our grandchildren?
Timber industry representatives say this vision of a radically changed face of Minnesota's forest will never come true. It will be decades before the citizens of Minnesota can see who's right.