In the Spotlight

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By Mary Losure
July 20, 1999
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The July 4th storm that swept through northern Minnesota flattened tens of millions of trees in the nation's most popular wilderness. Winds of up to 80 miles-per-hour transformed more than one quarter of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The U.S. Forest Service is still working full tilt to clear fallen logs from portages and campsites for the 200,000 canoeists, anglers and campers who visit each year. The storm and its aftermath have once again raised the question of what makes a wilderness. It's an issue that's been argued for generations in the Boundary Waters.

At 7 in the morning in the town of Ely on the southern edge of the Boundary Waters, weary-looking work crews, back from days in the woods, have rolled out to hear their next assignments.
Use caution when walking open portages. There will still be some down trees to negotiate.

Do not try to cross the windfalls on blocked portages or go cross-country through blowdown. You won't get far and you could get hurt.

Do not choose a tent site under leaning trees. More wind or rain could cause them to fall further.

Use extreme caution if you choose to cut small downed trees or remove branches. Fallen and leaning trees of any size are often under tension and will snap or jump back unexpectedly if sawn. Please leave the removal of larger trees to trained sawyers.

Visitors must also plan on digging a shallow pit toilet at least 150 feet from the shore. Many of the latrines were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

Source: U.S. Forest Service.

In a U.S Forest Service carpentry shop, hastily converted into a military style command center, a map of the areas hit by what's officially known as the "July 4th incident" is posted on the wall, with the storm damage color-coded according to its severity.

On this particular day, Forest Service worker John Pierce is sent out on a crew clearing the trail to Secret and Blackstone Lakes. He's been on work crews ever since the windstorm, and has seen some of the hardest hit areas in the wilderness.
Pierce: It looks like a clear cut, where all the trees are down, lying flat, typically all in the same direction. The winds came along in the same direction and laid everything down. As far as being on the ground and trying to open up a portage, it's like going through walls of trees. It's hard to find the portage and you just keep cutting.
Around Blackstone Lake, tree trunks, many of them a foot and more in diameter, lie across the trail every few feet. Often the way is blocked by the roots of toppled trees, masses of earth and roots standing as tall as a person. All around, the scattered tall trees left standing after the storm, rise above tangled masses of downed trunks and underbrush. Devastated as the area appears, Crew leader Pete Weckman says the damage here is relatively mild.
Weckman: I'd say on a scale of 1 to 10, it's probably a five, but as you can see, there's not many trees left out here. It's terrible. It's bad.
Each fallen trunk removed from the trail takes about 4 cuts with a chainsaw. The path becomes littered with sawdust as sawyers cut through each log, take a few steps forward, then cut again. Other crew members, called swampers, follow behind, heaving the cut logs and branches to the side of the trail. Opening this hiking trail is backbreaking. Crew member John Pierce says it's also dangerous.
Pierce: The trees go down, they criss-cross each other, they're held up by other trees, or branches of the same tree, and a lot of them are lying on top of each other. So if you cut one, a lot of trees can shift, they can spring up or back or sidewise.
The sound of a chainsaw can carry for miles across the remote lakes of the Boundary Waters. It's an area where environmentalists have fought for generations to keep motors out, but so far, environmental groups have voiced few objections to the chainsaws.

On the edge of the Boundary Waters, Mindy Latourell's family runs a resort that caters to both motorboaters and wilderness canoeists. She and her father Bob say after the storm hit, wilderness purists were among those calling loudest for the portages to be cleared out quickly.
Latourell: I heard about people being upset, you know like "when are they going to come with the chainsaws?". They were just happy they could come in there and cut it because they were knocking their Winona canoes all to heck.
Normally, motors are prohibited in most of the Boundary Waters except in emergencies. In the days immediately following the storm, chainsaws were essential to open portages quickly to search for and rescue injured campers.

Twenty were evacuated from the wilderness before the rescue mission officially ended last Sunday. Now, because it's less dangerous to cut tangled, spring-loaded trees with a chainsaw than with a hand-held saw, the Forest Service has extended the use of chainsaws until the end of next year, as workers continue to clean up portages, trails and campsites.

Don Arnosti of Minnesota's National Audubon Society says the decision to continue chainsaw use after the crisis has passed is likely to meet more resistance than the earlier, emergency use of chainsaws, especially if the chainsaws are widespread.
Arnosti: It would be a jarring experience for the next 18 months in a large portion of the wilderness for you to hear incessantly chainsaws going.
The Boundary Waters has been the subject of more legislation and court battles than any wilderness in the United States. Conservationists over the generations have struggled to get logging, float planes, and motorboats banned from an area set aside as a place for quiet and solitude.

Arnosti says now, the Forest Service also needs to consider the need for quiet. He says the agency should use handsaws later, when the trees have dried out and the danger has passed, not rush in with chainsaws to clear every last campsite this summer.
Arnosti: What is it that we're trying to do with this wilderness? Is it supposed to be a KOA campground or a Disneyland with so many beds? Are we supposed to have 1,000 hotel beds up there every night during June, July and August and is that what's it about?
Given the area's combative history, it's possible any decisions the Forest Service makes will spur controversy. One major question that lies ahead is how to deal with the fire danger caused by tens of millions of downed trees.

Preventing fires in the Boundary Waters in the past has caused a buildup of dead and diseased Balsam fir, a species that would normally be killed by small, frequent fires. Now the fir is succumbing to a pest known as spruce budworm. The added fuel from the downed trees is like a wick that could light this candle.

University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich says there's now a greater possibility of massive fires.
Frelich: The fir is a very flammable vegetation type, and then when the budworm kills some of it, you have a mixture of live and dead trees. That fuel type will support a very high-intensity fire. Balsam fir is commonly used as a Christmas tree and if you've ever thrown your dead Christmas tree in the fireplace, you know what happens.
The storm-downed trees lie mostly in a narrow swath running from west to east, some 35-miles long. Forest Service officials fear a fire starting in this continuous bed of fuel could be fanned by the region's prevailing west-to- east winds, and sweep over the wilderness's eastern border, into the resorts and cabins along the Gunflint Trail.

Forest Service fire specialist Paul Tine says the agency plans to deliberately set some smaller, controlled fires at points along the swath, so that the burned areas can act as firebreaks.
Tine: We're going to have to do it, there's no question about it. It's just moving ahead with getting the authority we need to do it, getting the plans in place, getting the dollars to have the equipment we need, and the trained personnel to do the job.
Right now, the Forest Service does not have the authority to set fires in the wilderness, although the agency is allowed to let naturally occuring fires burn.

Tine says the effort to win federal authorization for prescribed burns in the wilderness is now a top priority, along with removing downed trees around cabins and resorts on the Gunflint Trail on the edge of the Boundary Waters. The agency has requested more federal funding for fire-fighting equipment to protect that area.
Tine: If we can get those things in place before we have a really bad fire situation develop, then we can start going to the source, which is, basically, the fuel bed that lies within the wilderness.
The prescribed burning could begin next spring.

The National Audubon's Don Arnosti says his group does not object to prescribed burns in the Boundary Waters, but wants the Forest Service to consider ecological values, not just protecting property, when it decides where to set fires.
Arnosti: We would be interested that whatever they did would mimic natural processes, because what occurred here is part of the ecology of the area as fires would be. And many times controlled burns in multiple-use areas of the forest include bulldozing fire areas around the perimeter of the wilderness, and that would not be appropriate in the wilderness.
Where fires burn will shape the face of the Boundary Waters for years to come. The University of Minnesota's Frelich says the species of trees that grow back after the storm will depend on whether or not the areas are burned, as will the other plants and wildlife. But Frelich cautions that if you think of the boundary waters as a mosaic of different species, the small fires set or managed by humans will only influence a few tiles in the mosaic. The major changes will come with a fire too big to be controlled. The last giant fire in the Boundary Waters was in 1910. Frelich says sooner or later, another one like it is inevitable.
Frelich: Eventually we'll have a summer with a very severe drought, and some fires will get going whether by lightening, or escaped fires caused by people. Eventually, we're going to get a year like that and it's going to burn a huge chunk of the Boundary Waters. Those fires are really not controllable by any action that the Forest Service or anyone else can take. We're talking 50- to 100-foot-high flames. Those fires just play themselves out like they did in Yellowstone in 1988.
The Yellowstone fires and their natural after-effects - spectacular wildflower displays, new forests and meadows coming back, wildlife diversity in the burned areas - led to an increased acceptance of fire as part of nature, and it's possible something similar will occur in the Boundary Waters.

Already, visitors seem to accept the idea of change that is simply part of a natural cycle. David Barnes and his wife Edie have come to the Boundary Waters from Rockford Illinois. They hadn't heard about the storm before they got to Minnesota, but David Barnes says they would have come anyway.
Barnes: It's like the fires out in Yellowstone that burned and now they're reconsidering the thoughts about extinguishing them. They ought to just let them go, because 10 or 15 years afterwards, it's just so much richer environment out there, and I expect the same thing out here, that this sort of things happen and have happened for thousands of years.
So far, the Boundary Waters is not seeing a drop in visitors because of the storm, and may not, if what happened in Yellowstone is any indication. There, visitor numbers have climbed steadily since the 1988 fire.