The Lore of the Pines

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

Intrigued, Rogers found that other animals were also drawn to pinus strobus. Almost 80 percent of the eagle and osprey nests in the Superior National Forest were in white pines, whose branches accommodated their six-foot wing spans and nests weighing up to a ton. Woodpeckers loved the trunks and so did bats. When the trees' cores rotted out, hollows appeared to make bear dens.

Then Rogers noticed something else. Pines where he'd watched cubs take shelter and eagles nest were stumps the next time he came by. And in the forest around them no new ones were coming up.

Undisturbed, a white pine will live to between 300 and 400 years. In Minnesota's pre-logging forest, about half of the pines at any given time were more than 120 years old. Today, only 3 percent reach that age, and only 19 percent are younger than 60. "The majority of these trees," Rogers says, "are only a quarter into their life cycle. They're teenagers. We're missing the grandparents and the children."

Rogers's most startling discovery came when he looked at the plan his employers the Forest Service had prepared for its timber harvest. If current policy continued, a 1986 document showed, the acreage of Superior National Forest consisting of pine older than 70 years would be reduced 87 percent by 2035, shrinking from 32,500 acres to 4,400 acres. And that was for red and white pine. With foresters guessing that only 20 percent of those mixed forests were made up of white pine, mature white pines would cover no more than 1,000 of the Superior National Forest's acres, or about one and a half square miles.

In 1991, Rogers started started telling his bosses that no more white pines should be cut pending a study of their future. Then-Superior chief David Filius responded in an "eyes-only" memo to a colleague that such advice, "though well intended, is not what is needed. We see no need to come at the issue from quite the preservation perspective that Lynn proposes. We're actually being accused of underharvesting, so you can see how this pulls us both ways."

A few months after that--and after Rogers had handed a copy of an article he'd written on white pines to Dale Robertson, then-chief of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.--the service began an investigation of him. It searched for evidence of a variety of offenses including taking wildlife photos on government time for personal gain, violating building policies, and sexual harassment. He was fired in 1993, but appealed because many of the service's key witnesses claimed their statements were misconstrued or made up. Rather than letting the case go to a judge, his former employer offered a settlement featuring a pension, health benefits, and $27,000 worth of legal fees.

Forest Service officials won't comment much about the matter these days, but Rogers insists he was framed because of his white-pine advocacy. He loved his job, he says, so he built his own institute and is now working with former colleagues to start an International Bear Center in Ely.

And he's still talking about white pines. He's put together a slide show for lectures around the state, and last year he was among the driving forces behind a legislative proposal to ban logging of white pines on state land for 18 months. The bill was opposed by the state Department of Natural Resources and never came to a floor vote. It's likely to be reintroduced this year.

Meanwhile, though, the DNR has come up with a tried-and-true response: Forming a task force. It's called the White Pine Regeneration Strategies Work Group and includes representatives from the Forest Service, the DNR, and the University of Minnesota, plus a lone environmentalist. Officials considered appointing Rogers but decided against it because, they said, he would have wanted to "deal with policy before dealing with technical questions."

Last month the task force came up with a report that was widely acclaimed for its recommendations on helping seedlings grow, but remained vague on restricting the harvest. "Everyone wants to see more white pines in the future," Rogers says. "But no one has unselfishness enough to say, 'Let's stop cutting some of the 2 percent that's left.' They try to snow us with things like, 'We've got to cut them to save them.' I don't buy that. We've been cutting them for over a century, and only 2 percent came back."

Incidentally, even the white-pine task force's cautious recommendations aren't getting much response. Last week, when Gov. Arne Carlson released his proposed budget, funds for white-pine restoration programs--including those the DNR has already started--were conspicuously absent.

As it happens, most of the Superior National Forest's old pines are in the Lacroix District, the one that also holds Little Alfie. It encompasses the forest's westernmost part, hugging the Boundary Waters along the east and south and ending at Voyageurs Park to the north. Connie Chaney is the district ranger, and Jay Strand manages the timber program. They're the ones who drove us out in a heavy green Suburban, down the Echo Trail and along a forest road to Little Alfie.

Strand and Chaney are part of a new generation of foresters, who came to the profession in the environmental heyday of the late 1970s and early '80s. They like to camp in the wilderness and drop words like "ecosystem" the way rangers used to talk about tree "crops." "Personally, I need to know there are places like this," Chaney says. "And if this were the last one, I think I'd be in here blocking the logging trucks myself."

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