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Part of Our State, Our Forests
Ever since the early 1980s, environmentalists concerned about increased logging in Minnesota have called for reform of the state's timber industry, but so far there have been no sweeping changes. Now, efforts to preserve habitat for an elusive bird known as the northern goshawk could cause greater restrictions on the logging of the state's older forests than any seen so far.
IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, MILLIONS OF ACRES of old-growth timber have been protected from logging to save an endangered species, the famous spotted owl. So far, Minnesota has had no equivalent to the spotted owl, but its candidate for that role is 18-inch tall hawk with a slate gray back, streaked breast, and fierce red eyes - the northern goshawk.
From the point of view of conservationists eager to save old forests, the spotted owl was a perfect tool - a federally endangered species that depended for its survival on the ancient, old-growth forests of the West. But the goshawk isn't quite such a perfect fit. To begin with, it's not on the Federal Endangered Species list, but it is a rare species that government agencies such as the Forest Service are obligated to protect, and it may depend on just the kind of forests conservationists in Minnesota want to save.
Clint Boal: It 's right up there through that opening - right there. It's in a tall aspen in the back. Look right up through there.In the Chippewa National Forest, in the shadowy light filtering through the canopy of big maples, basswoods, aspen, and other trees, I can just make out the clump of sticks in the crook of an old aspen. Biologist Clint Boal is pointing out a goshawk's nest. The goshawks have gone hunting.
Boal: They're called a short-perch-and-wait predator. They fly up to a perch, and this is under the canopy of the forest, they scan the area for a minute or two, then they move again. Scan, move, scan. once they see something, they're built for speed - for a quick sprint. Also, they have a long tail, acts like a rudder. The forest is like an obstacle course, and the goshawk is perfectly built to take on that challenge.The forest we are standing in is not true old growth - it's not virgin timber that has never been cut. There's almost none of that left in Minnesota. Massive logging at the turn of the century wiped out the state's cathedral-like groves of big white pines. This stand in the Chippewa is what is now considered old forest for Minnesota - mature trees that have grown back since the state's Paul Bunyan era. The question now is whether the goshawk depends on these regrown, mature forests.
This summer, Boal radio collared nine goshawks in and around the Chippewa.
Boal: The transmitter has a transmission switch so we can tell when they're perched and when they're flying; it speeds up when they're flying.Boal and other workers tracked the goshawks through the forest to find out exactly where the birds hunted. They mapped out the locations, which will be analyzed to find out exactly what kind of habitat the goshawk requires in Minnesota. The timber industry, environmental groups, and the U.S Forest Service are cooperating on the two-year study. All are anxious to find out whether in Minnesota the goshawk needs large blocks of mature forest or can coexist with extensive logging. They don't know the answer yet, but the stakes are high.
Raptor biologist Patricia Kennedy of Colorado State University says in other parts of the country, there have been significant reductions in timber harvesting to protect goshawk habitat.
Kennedy: And what they've done, for example, with the goshawks, instead of just protecting nest sites, which may be, say a 20-acre area. What they look at is protecting the area where the bird hunts as well as where it nests. These birds hunt over 4-6,000 thousand acre areas.It's not clear what effect protecting the entire range of nesting pairs of goshawks would have in Minnesota. No one knows exactly how many pairs of the birds live in the state. There are 13 known nests, but goshawks are reclusive and notoriously hard to study, and there have not been extensive surveys.
Kennedy says whether the goshawk proves an effective tool to reduce timber harvesting in Minnesota will also depend on whether state environmental groups are willing to press the issue. Ginny Yingling, Minnesota state director of the Sierra Club, says so far, many of them have been holding back.
Yingling: My sense is that most of the environmental organizations have not wanted to develop a spotted owl-like conflict in this state, even though that did a lot toward raising the issue of logging in the western states and was a very good legal tool.Yingling says much of the public saw the spotted owl conflict as owls vs. jobs instead of an issue of preserving ancient forests. The bodies of spotted owls were found nailed to road signs - a backlash against the bird itself that environmentalists in Minnesota don't want to see happen to the goshawk.
Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy calls fights over endangered species a backstop to use when all other efforts fail, but, he says, as the logging of mature forest in Minnesota continues, environmental groups are becoming more willing to consider such tactics.
Erkel: No matter what happens with the goshawk, this issue will keep coming up. It's not something that we can avoid. If it's not the goshawk, it may be a different species of bird that is dependent (on) or has some need for old forest conditions. And we either address the problem now, with the goshawk, or it will be another species.Last year, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, along with the Leach Lake Band of Chippewa, appealed a timber sale in a Goshawk's territory in the Chippewa National Forest. The Forest Service suspended the sale indefinitely. In the meantime, all sides are waiting for the results of the study of the goshawks habitat needs. The timber industry does not expect it will have to make major changes. Tim O'Hara of Minnesota Forest Industries, a trade group representing the state's major pulp, paper, and lumber mills, says there's no evidence that in the Midwest, the goshawk needs large blocks of unbroken forest.
O'Hara: It's prey-base is squirrels, rabbits, and grouse and those species are associated with younger forest. The need for older, mature forests comes with where it makes its nest and raises its young. So what we're speculating the goshawk would need a whole mosaic out there - old forest, younger forests - which Minnesota has plenty of that habitat out there.O'Hara and other timber company representatives say Minnesota has plenty of older forests and can even increase logging rates without damaging wildlife species like the goshawk.
John Chell, manager of public affairs for Blandin Paper Company in Grand Rapids - one of the state's biggest timber users - says from a broad environmental perspective, cutbacks in Midwest logging aren't even a good idea. He says worldwide demand for paper is growing, and if less logging is done here, more will be done in tropical rain forests and other places far less suitable to logging than the Midwest.
Chell: I think you have to step outside Minnesota and say, "On a worldwide basis, where is the best place to be growing these forests for industrial products?" And your choice really comes down to the Upper Midwest, with a thriving industry now, or other places such as eucaliptus plantations in South America, which are displacing huge areas of native rainforest and the richness of biodiversity that they represent.Chell says concerns about the goshawk, as well as other rare species such as the boreal owl and the Canada lynx, are growing in Minnesota. But he says as an environmental issue, timber harvesting here is minor compared with the logging of ancient forests that sparked the spotted owl controversy out west.
Chell: I find it difficult to anticipate a representative of Earth First, for example, chaining himself to a 70-year-old aspen tree. That's not to say these aren't resources that we need to manage effectively, it's simply saying the issues of the West and the issues of the Midwest are not comparable.It's unarguable that cutting 100-year-old trees in Minnesota is a less dramatic issue than the logging of 100 year old trees in the West, but the state is beginning to see more environmental activism as its stepped-up timber harvest continues. For the past two winters, Earth First activists have protested in the woods of Northern Minnesota. Nationwide, environmental groups have begun to take more interest in the fate of regrown forests and to pressure the U.S Forest Service to let older trees revert to wilderness instead of being cut for pulp and paper. The goshawk may be a player in this battle - but its role, like its future, is still unclear.