The Lore of the Pines

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

But she's not, and part of the point of our tour is to explain why. Strand and Chaney point out that most of the tall trees around us are actually red pine, and that among them white pines no thicker than a child's arm poke through the snow. Little Alfie, it turns out, was partially logged in 1985. Filtered light flooded the forest floor, there was an extraordinarily good white-pine cone crop, and voila--natural regeneration. Now the plan is to take out 60 percent of the remaining trees and hope that the seedlings will take off. Some day, the Forest Service might go in and take out the remaining canopy in a "final harvest."

It is, according to a lot of people who deal with this kind of thing, a sensible idea. Though the trees in here have been around for more than 100 years, the stand does not qualify as official old growth in part because it's been logged recently. "The protest they had, people were emotionally responding to the cutting of individual trees," says Lee Frelich, a University of Minnesota researcher and an authority on white pines. "As a scientist, I don't look at it that way. True old growth is extremely valuable to research. But those trees that are not old growth, it's best to do some work in them and regenerate the pine."

Not everyone agrees; Lynn Rogers, for one, maintains that precisely because the white-pine seedlings made a valiant start at Little Alfie, the stand should be left alone. But the debate over technique misses part of the point anyway. "Everyone is going to see this place differently," Strand points out. "You can have one person coming in here and saying these make great two-by-fours. Someone else is going to say, this is a cathedral. And it's a tough compromise--I don't know if there's any compromise. It's impossible to meet all the needs in every part of the picture. And it so happens that this part of the picture is meeting a need that isn't really about the pure aesthetic view of the big trees."

Officially, what Strand is describing is called multiple-use management, and it's been the Forest Service's mandate ever since Hubert Humphrey introduced the National Forest Management Act in 1976. It's a complicated concept that demands the rangers provide environmental protection, recreation, and "fiber for the nation."
In theory, all those goals are supposed to be equally important. In practice, it's often a matter of squeaky wheels.

"The timber resource is currently underused," notes the 10-year forest management plan under which Superior currently operates. "An opportunity exists for considerable expansion of timber-based industry." That was written in 1986, when officials looked at the second-growth forest that had sprung up after Minnesota's great logging and found that much of it was reaching prime harvestable age. It would be a shame, they argued, to let all that good wood go to waste.

And so, over the course of a decade, the forest industry grew to become the second-largest manufacturing sector in Minnesota, employing almost 60,000 people by 1996. During the same period, the timber harvest in the state--public and private lands combined--doubled from about 2 million cords a year to four. By way of example, the Potlatch mill in Cook, just 20 miles down from Tony Vukelich's place, chews up 178,000 cords a year. The 17 truckloads he was hoping to get out of Little Alfie would go through its machines in one eight-hour shift.

A graphic representation of what this means comes from a Superior National Forest map compiled by the forest service to show "desired land conditions" for each tract. Most of the acreage outside the Boundary Waters is designated for "young aspen and birch stands"--the kind of forest that emerges after clearcutting, and that feeds the paper and board mills. Clearcutting (or, in forester-ese, "even-age management") is listed as the harvest method for 98 percent of Superior's timber sales.

Foresters have, it should be said, been trying to get away from moonscape cutting with its disastrous effects on soil, water, and wildlife. Harvest guidelines often call for cutting smaller patches of forest and leaving up to 10 percent of the biggest trees standing for shade, seed and, especially along roads, "visual interest." But that leads to another dilemma: Those big trees supply saw timber--wood that, unlike pulp stock, can only come from full-grown trees. And since much of the best timber on private land has long since been cut, the pressure is on the public's forest.

That was the point made by Filius, the then-superintendent, in a 1992 memo. "To date we have not annually harvested 97 million board feet," he wrote, alluding to the maximum amount of annual cutting the forest service set in its ten-year plan. "Our annual average is 86 million board feet. Nor have we been harvesting 12 million board feet of sawtimber; our average is 8 or 9 million board feet... The real concern that fuels this issue is the one raised by Hedstrom's and Midwest [two of the biggest lumber companies in the state] that we're not providing enough sawtimber to keep their mills alive."

So, Filius asked his employees, "what are some things you can do to help...? Harvest in bigger units [and] don't leave high-value, merchantable pine sawtimber if you have other options. The high value species help our below-cost situation."

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