The Lore of the Pines

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

Today Minnesota has about 60 percent of the forest area it had before Europeans came--but only about 2 percent of the white pines. And their wood is more valuable than ever.

Lumber statistics are usually expressed in board feet; one board foot is a piece of wood a foot square and an inch thick. A good-size pine will hold between 300 and 400 board feet. On average, 1,000 board feet of white pine "on the stump"--two and a half or three live trees--now sell for $200 to $250, more than any other kind of wood and up 300 percent from 10 years ago. Red pine, pinus strobus's coarser cousin, is not far behind. And even for that kind of money, it's not often you get a good-size stand of mature pine. Which is why Tony Vukelich jumped on the chance.

A tall man with a soft voice and a gray mustache, Vukelich has spent most of his life in Orr, the town of 265 that hugs the eastern shore of Pelican Lake and serves as a gateway to both the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park. Despite its spectacular location, Orr never turned into the kind of tourism haven Ely did, 50 miles to the east. This remains timber country, and it's hard to drive for more than 10 minutes on U.S. Highway 53 and not encounter a logging truck.

Four miles north of Orr is Cusson (pronounced "Cousin"), a town of nine that was once home to more than 4,000 loggers. The Virginia and Rainy Lake timber company--owners: Fredric and Anna Weyerhaeuser--had its main mill here. It cut almost 2 billion board feet between 1910 and 1929. When the trees were gone, the Weyerhaeusers shut the mill down, sold most of the town to their bookkeeper, and moved west for the tall timber in Oregon.

A few years later the feds turned the town into a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Again thousands worked here, this time building roads and planting pine seedlings. Then Cusson sat abandoned once more. Vukelich--a former schoolteacher, carpenter, and logger--bought part of the old mill in 1981. He named his business Cusson Camp Company (CCC); its logo is modeled after the old CCC badge bearing a pine tree.

Cusson Camp makes specialty wood products, the only way an outfit this small can survive. His vintage 1940s equipment saws posts and rafters for log homes and post-and-beam structures. Demand for the rustic mansions, which take up to twice as much the wood of an average frame structure, is rising as affluent retirees flock to the lake country.

Last month, Vukelich hired a contract logger to cut a stand of pine he'd bid high on at a Superior National Forest auction. If everything worked out, the 17-or-so truckloads of wood would keep him and his half-dozen employees in business for most of this year and next. But when the logger pulled into the sale on December 9, he found a bunch of people camped in the middle of the road by a big bonfire. One wore a Smokey Bear costume.

Vukelich took it about as well as anyone might have. He didn't demand that the Forest Service clear the protesters out and enforce his contract. He sat tight for two weeks, meeting with environmentalists and the Forest Service, taking reporters' calls and scratching his head. At one point it looked as if a compromise, involving mainstream environmental groups like the Audubon Society, had been found. Then there was a lawsuit from a tiny organization called Earth Protector, and the Forest Service decided to take time out for an environmental assessment. That won't be done before the end of the winter.

Like most of the small-time forest entrepreneurs up here, Vukelich considers himself a good steward. He shudders at the way the trees were cut the first time around; he's read all about sustainable forestry and is in favor of government making sure more trees grow than are taken out. But he also knows that natural-growth pine, as opposed to the stuff on plantations, makes the best lumber you're ever going to find. And if the Forest Service tells him that Little Alfie is ready for harvest, he's inclined to believe it. These are, he points out, professionals.

Some 60 miles southeast of Cusson, Lynn Rogers's Northwoods Research Institute sits under tall pines by a lake. Inside, light reflects softly off wood paneling, wood floors, wood doors. There are crammed bookshelves, papers scattered on desks and on the floor, a computer and a fax machine. And, of course, bears--in color and black and white, on posters and postcards and mugs.

Rogers is an internationally recognized researcher, a wildlife photographer, and a good part of the reason why the black bear has gone from a vaguely threatening memory to a northwoods icon. Until not long ago he worked for the Forest Service, tracking bears out of a research center near Ely.

Some years ago on his rounds, Rogers says, he was struck by how mother bears would walk long distances to find a white pine, depositing their young at its base as with a baby sitter before going off to forage. The reason, he eventually discovered, was that the pine made perfect refuge. Cubs that couldn't scale the bark of other trees would climb up its solid furrows and sit for hours in the shade of its crown.

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