The Lore of the Pines

Politics, myth, and money in Minnesota's dwindling north woods.

The bonfire is gone, covered by two feet of new snow. There are no tracks except for the ones made by your snowshoes, intricate figure-eight patterns laid down with a rhythmic crunch. After a few hundred feet on the forest road you turn right, down a slight incline and up another. Trees draw your eyes upward along their copper trunks. The breeze from a faraway blizzard throws snow from the crowns 80 feet above; it lands in soft thuds. A branch snaps underfoot, and crows rise screeching.

This is the Little Alfie timber sale, the one that made news in the weeks before Christmas. Environmentalists had gotten hold of documents showing that the U.S. Forest Service hadn't done a required environmental assessment before selling the 100-plus-year pines to a local sawmill operator for about $100 each. Earth First! moved in. A lawsuit was filed. The Forest Service blinked. Environmentalists cheered.

But look deeper into the forest, and the picture shifts. There's a clearing in the distance, and if you listen close, the sound of a
logging truck comes in on the breeze. Another one will be here when the paperwork is complete, if not in a few months then next year. The cry of "Victory at Little Alfie," as Earth First!'s press release put it, may have been premature. And besides, victory for exactly what?

Ten thousand years ago, when the ice retreated, boreal forests took hold on the shores of glacial Lake Agassiz; then, as the climate warmed, the pines marched in from the east. They did well on the rocky soils, among the frequent fires that burned other trees but merely scarred their thick bark. They spread south to Lake Mille Lacs and west almost to the Rainy River, reaching their zenith around 4,000 years ago.

There are three kinds of pine in Minnesota--red, white, and jack--but only one holds mythical significance. "Perhaps no other tree in the world has had so momentous a career" as the white pine, wrote naturalist Donald Culross Peattie in his 1948 book A Natural History of Trees. "Certainly no other has played so great a role in the life and history of the American people."

Pinus strobus, once you've seen it, is impossible to miss--its emerald, feathery needles, five to a bunch, its furrowed black bark, its pagoda-like silhouette of strong branches held at the top of a tapered trunk. And, of course, its wood, white on the outside and reddish at the heart, incomparably straight and clear and capable of holding its shape.

Not all the white pine legends are true. They never reached the size of the giant redwoods out west; most grew no more than 150 feet tall, and four or five feet across at the base. They didn't cover all of northern Minnesota, in perfect groves as far as the eye could see; they grew among other trees, or by themselves in the occasional clump, making up less than 10 percent of the forest. The woods weren't "virgin;" native people cut them, burned them, and cultivated the soil beneath them for crops.

But there were a lot of big trees, which is why the loggers followed them all the way from New England. It had taken less than two centuries to log most of the "pineries" of the northeast, supplying masts for Britain's fleet and for the slave ships, and less than one century to strip Wisconsin and Michigan to build the cities of the East. Minnesota held the last of the white pine, on land taken from the Ojibway in the treaties of 1837, 1842, and 1854.

The scale of the logging still boggles the imagination. It's estimated that Minnesota in 1897 had 3.5 million acres of white pine, or about 20 times the size of the seven-county metro. By 1930, all but a fraction of it had been cut. Something like 68 billion board feet of pine was taken out of the state during that time--enough, if stacked on a city block, to make a pile three miles high.

And if the trees of New England had been cut largely by self-made, independent lumberjacks, Minnesota saw the advent of the "lumber barons," the Weyerhaeusers and Carnegies and Rockefellers. They had the capital to build sawmills for a mass market; they could build railroads and bring in equipment to go after the iron ore under the forest floor. Those trees didn't just build cities--Chicago after the fire, Des Moines, St. Paul and Minneapolis--but some of the period's greatest personal fortunes.

By the early 1930s it was all over. The loggers were dead, or unemployed, or working in the mines. Some were trying to make a living from the cutover lands. But the soil in which forests grow isn't usually good for farming, and most of the homesteaders failed by the second generation. The trees began to grow back.

It was a different forest. Aspen, whose roots stay alive after it's cut (some of today's aspen are growing on root systems 30,000 years old), sent up its shoots and spread its winged seed. Balsam fir followed, and paper birch. The fast-growing trees choked out most of the pine seedlings. Deer, which thrived in the new forest's tasty young vegetation, chewed up the rest. Perhaps the greatest damage came when it suddenly became fashionable to plant white pine. Nurseries had seedlings grown in Europe to aid the process, and those trees brought with them a new fungus called blister rust to which American pines had no resistance.

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