An Agate Original
It’s sobering to think how much we have changed the landscape of Minnesota over the last 150 years. Less than one percent of our original prairie remains; forests now cover about half the amount of land as before European settlement.
Luckily, Minnesota has set aside more than a million acres in Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) across the state. By law, these lands are to be managed specifically to provide habitat for our fellow beings. State Statute 86A.05 says, “A state wildlife management area shall be established to protect those lands and waters which have a high potential for wildlife production and to develop and manage these lands and waters for the production of wildlife, for public hunting, fishing, and trapping, and for other compatible outdoor recreational uses.”
The cost of managing these areas is largely paid for by federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, as well as by state hunting license fees, critical habitat license plates, and other sources including the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
There has always been a degree of friction in the Department of Natural Resources between forestry and wildlife professionals over how to manage our forests. Although the DNR’s forestry web page talks about the importance of woodlands in maintaining “clean water and natural resources for future generations,” there is growing concern that the agency is concentrating on harvest targets and economic gain at the expense of forest ecology. That tension erupted in the summer of 2019 when 28 wildlife managers and scientists wrote to their boss, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, outlining their concerns. They told Strommen it is not “scientifically honest or transparent to say that the [current logging regime] is beneficial to wildlife.”
One of the critics is Steve Thorne, a retired DNR deputy commissioner. “They haven’t even made a pretense of making timber sales (on Wildlife Management Areas) subservient to wildlife management,” he says. “They’ve never had a hard target before. Timber sales are not planned by wildlife managers; they’re assigned from the top down.” Thorne and other DNR retirees, along with outdoor recreation enthusiasts and scientists have formed a group called the “WMA Stakeholders Network.”
A little history
Back in 1990 the state conducted a massive study of logging and forest health, which concluded that Minnesota could sustain harvest of 800,000 cords of wood annually. (A cord is a stack of wood four feet high, eight feet long, and four feet deep.)
Then, in 2016, at the urging of the timber industry, Governor Mark Dayton directed the Minnesota DNR to conduct a new study to determine how much more timber the state could sustainably produce. In March, 2018 the agency’s Sustainable Timber Harvest Analysis settled on 870,000 cords—nearly a nine percent increase.
Retired DNR forestry manager Craig Sterle calls the decision an example of regulatory capture, where industry dictates the rules. “You scratch your head and say, how did the agency come up with that decision?” Sterle says the DNR is relying too much on a flawed computer model. “That’s not how you do it,” he says. “You hire boots on the ground to make those field decisions based on what they know is out there.”
Sterle says using the computer model is like wearing blinders. “The model can’t see any forest habitat beyond the boundary of state land: it’s making decisions without knowing the context of the surrounding land, and if the DNR doesn’t own the surrounding land, they can’t count on it serving as good wildlife habitat.”
The current Director of the DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, Dave Olfelt, says the agency still relies on staff expertise, but the computer model is enabling managers to look at a bigger picture, allowing them to expand the geographic scale of forest management plans. “We have an elaborate system of management with checks and balances,” he says. “No one person has the final say; that has been made clearer in the last couple of years, so there’s been some tension.”
Indeed, some wildlife managers feel they have lost control under the new system. Rich Staffon, who retired as wildlife manager for Pine, Carlton, and south St. Louis Counties and is the current president of the W. J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, says in his day, timber harvests were decided on a more collegial basis. “On wildlife management areas, foresters would inventory the timber and we would get the list but we would decide what should be harvested. We’d work with the foresters to set up the sales but we’d determine what would be harvested and when; we could decide what trees to reserve from harvest.”
Staffon says there are a lot of misconceptions about what animals need. Everyone knows deer love to chomp on young aspen; but they also need a lot of conifers for winter cover.
Likewise, ruffed grouse do well in young forest, 15-40 years old, but they need a variety of ages—young, medium, and old—close together, within two or three acres. “Conifers show up 15 years after an area is disturbed; the aspen is growing pretty well, but they cut it too soon, and when it rains the grouse need conifers for shelter,” says Staffon. “Compared to the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Minnesota, here in northern Minnesota we no longer have a diversity of aspen stands, just dense stands of suckers. A more natural progression would include hazel, mountain ash and other shrubs—a much more variable landscape.
Then, there are the animals that den in trees. “Piliated woodpeckers create cavities in old trees, and fishers and martens come along and use the cavities, along with wood ducks and many songbirds,” Staffon explains. “The only tree that produces good cavities in northeastern Minnesota is aspen, and you need an 80-year-old aspen with a large enough diameter to produce good cavities. But most of it is harvested at 35 to 40 years.” The animals use a new cavity each year. When they can’t find a good cavity tree, Staffon says they nest in a brush pile or whatever they can find, which makes them vulnerable to predation, leading to population decline.
Eagles and osprey use big old white pines for nesting sites, Staffon says. “But pine harvest is mostly done at 60 years: that’s middle-aged.”
The DNR’s Dave Olfelt is well aware of these habitat requirements. He says the agency is trying to create a mosaic of old trees, young trees, and habitat. “We’re in a transition moving from where we really haven’t done that well at all, to where we can do it better.”
He says the computer model is not making final decisions. “The computer will put a stand of timber on a list, then we look at it on the ground. Then we ask other questions. We built into the model older harvest ages in Wildlife Management Areas—60 years for aspen. And on state forest land we leave a minimum of 5% of the stand for habitat trees or to provide seed. On WMAs, we leave a minimum of 10%.”
But wildfires leave far more standing timber than that, says Staffon. “And it is often large, healthy trees that survive wildfire, whereas loggers usually leave more marginal trees,” he says. “Fires also burn in irregular patches, and release nutrients into the soil that logging doesn’t provide. Wildfires create a very diverse forest ecosystem,” he notes.
A thicket of challenges
The mosaic, or a patchwork landscape, created by wildfires is regarded as the ideal condition for a forest. For nearly 100 years we have not tolerated wildfires, and managers have used logging as a substitute. But the two processes don’t work the same way. A fire burns hot at times, and cools down at times, staying close to the ground. This thins out the forest and leaves a lot of trees undamaged.
Fire suppression is blamed for several management challenges, including the unchecked growth of spruce budworm infestations that kill spruce and balsam firs, leaving the trunks and branches to stand as dry tinder that fuels hot wildfires. Last summer’s destructive Greenwood Fire, centered on an area of heavy budworm infestation, burned about 27,000 acres.
Land ownership patterns have changed in the last 40 years. Timber companies once owned vast tracts of forest; when they found they could make a lot of money selling it off to individual buyers, they did. With timber harvest almost entirely limited to state and county land, there are fewer acres to log.
In northeastern Minnesota, vast areas of forest land are controlled by the federal, state, and county governments. Each of these levels of government has its own system for taking inventory, and there is no system for inventorying private lands. This makes it very difficult for managers to know what is really on the ground.
Olfelt is excited about LiDAR, short for “light detection and ranging,” a technology that uses laser beams to create a 3D representation of the environment. Much of Minnesota’s forest landscape has already been sampled; now experts are comparing those images with some forest stands studied from the ground to create digital “signatures” that can then be used broadly to interpret forest conditions across the landscape.
Imagery has been flown broadly across the forest—like air photos you don’t turn it on or off based on ownership. The work happening right now is on-the-ground sampling of some forest stands to try
U.S. Fish and Wildlife oversight
Frustrated with what they perceived as stonewalling by the DNR, the WMA Stakeholders Network met with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in early 2020. The FWS supervises grants to Minnesota and other states, making sure the federal sporting equipment tax money is used for the approved purposes.
In the spring of 2020 the FWS conducted “grant compliance monitoring” on three large Minnesota WMAs. Its report cited several problems, such as swaths of trees that were cut and left on the ground by loggers, an area of harvested oak that was repopulated by invasive buckthorn, aspen and ash trees instead of oak, and high slash piles that could inhibit regrowth. More generally, the report said the DNR lacked records to show decision-making, and apparently the agency had “lost control of land” on the WMAs.
This year the federal agency added a long list of conditions the DNR must meet to its current two-year $26.4 million federal block grant.
Olfelt concedes the DNR’s planning has fallen behind and admits records have not detailed the interactions that occur during the planning process—for example, when a wildlife manager objects to a tract being offered for logging, and how the disagreement is resolved.
Meanwhile, the WMA Stakeholders Network says it is preparing legislation designed to “hold the DNR to account” on wildlife funding. And they have asked the Office of the Legislative Auditor to study the situation.
It is not clear why the DNR is having so much trouble creating plans for Wildlife Management Areas. Olfelt explains that planning is done by interdisciplinary teams and says it takes a couple of years to plan for each region, of which there are seven or eight in the state. Then a new team is assigned to plan the next region. “Policies and procedures are always changing a bit, and so the most recent one will be quite different from the first,” he says. “Individual planning teams were coming up with different answers to how to solve for the (previous) 800,000-cord harvest, and the pieces weren’t fitting together. Some parts of the state may have received a more aggressive harvest plan than they should have, because there were different folks on the team.”
Thorne says the lack of planning is a serious problem. Most of the Wildlife Management Areas in Minnesota don’t have plans. “We think before you do this intensified harvest on WMAs you really ought to do those plans.” Thorne says. “They should discuss how to manage the landscape, how to develop, conserve, and improve the land; what kind of diversity should we try to maintain; goals for plants and animals that are most suited for the landscape.” And he wants public involvement in the process: not only the active retirees, but “sportsmen and women who have considerable knowledge and experience on these lands. They’ve got a reason to be interested and they expect their money to be spent wisely, for the purpose for which it was raised.”
Perhaps it’s telling that when you ask for a definition of the word “sustainable” in the state’s “Sustainable Timber Harvest Analysis,” you get very different answers.
Retiree Rich Staffon charges that under current DNR practices, the word means “Sustaining a certain volume of wood for the timber industry, not sustaining a healthy forest.”
The current DNR manager, Olfelt, says, “We are leaving resources in a way that preserve options for the people who come after us. It doesn’t mean optimizing everything; there are ebbs and flows in various values that we have for the forest; we can’t optimize everything all at the same time. But we hand it off to the next generations in such a condition that there are at least as many options as we have today.”