The Lore of the Pines

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

There is more than a little irony in how it turned out. Chances are reporters and Earth First! would never have come to Little Alfie had the forest service not been sloppy on the paperwork. Chances also are that once that paperwork is done and the environmental assessment complete, the harvest will once again be given the green light. And by current standards, it won't even be the worst thing that could happen to a piece of forest.

After Little Alfie, Strand and Chaney take us around to see a couple of other tracts nearby. First, we bushwhack our way into a patch just to the north, in the Lake Alf Environmental Assessment Area. Red and white pines tower in what the pros call the "supercanopy;" beneath them grows a tangle of balsam fir and white spruce, paper birch and aspen. In the clearings, tag alder and willow reach up with their tough, skinny branches. A woodpecker clacks not far away.

The way the Forest Service had it figured originally, this piece of forest was headed for a clearcut. But the wildlife biologists protested and Little Alfie was designated for harvest instead. "This is not park-like the way Little Alfie is," Chaney says. "But if you talk to an ecologist, they would choose this stand over that one because it has a lot of diversity, a lot of dead and down wood, all the things that are really valuable in an ecosystem. It's got true old-growth qualities."

Next we head south, less than a mile down the forest road. Here, the machines are at work in a landscape littered with shreds of trees, torn branches, stumps. The bright yellow and red behemoths rotate smoothly on their axes, mechanically snapping trees off at the base, dragging them around like matchsticks and piling them up in big heaps. They look like something from Orson Welles's War of the Worlds, except that each one holds a well-fed guy in coveralls.

"They're sorting these by product," Strand yells above the din. The big red-pine logs are probably going to a mill to become dimension lumber. The aspen trunks, many with rotten cores from old age, are headed for the paper mills. There's also spruce and balsam; the paper birch, for which there's not much of a market right now, is left, swaying in a newly unimpeded breeze.

It doesn't hit me until a few miles away that, from the wood that's coming out, this looks a lot like the stand we just saw, the one the rangers worked to preserve. "It does, kind of, doesn't it?" Chaney asks back. "That's interesting." "When was that sold, anyway?" Strand inquires. "'92?" "Yeah." They're both quiet for a little while. "You know," Chaney says, "there's no telling if, if that was analyzed now, it would come out the same."

Lynn Rogers doesn't know about this sale. Nor does Ray Fenner. It doesn't involve any white pine; they're leaving those as "seed trees," with the usual hope that some of the seeds will get off to a good start before the aspen takes over. There will be no headlines about Lake Alf II--even though it may well have had "old-growth qualities."

Old growth has been a fighting phrase in the timber wars, and for good reason. The argument that the ancient forests of the West must be cut to make two-by-fours is worthless on its face, and it stands to reason that bailing out job-starved logging communities would cost a lot less than (probably unsuccessfully) trying to fix the environmental damage.

Around here, things are a bit more complicated. According to University of Minnesota researcher Lee Frelich, only 1.1 percent of the forest that once grew in the state has never been logged. And even those trees aren't necessarily centuries old: Many stands, like Little Alfie, began growing fairly recently after a fire or a windstorm.

Yet between those "primary" stands and the oldest second-growth forests, Minnesota once again holds quite a bit of what loggers call "overmature" wood. Recently, a survey by the state DNR found that some 27,000 acres of state forest land might qualify as old growth. On national forest land, the figure is close to 600,000 for both the Superior and Chippewa National Forests; Superior has the most potential old growth with half a million acres, most of it in the BWCA.

Until recently, there were no laws or regulations to protect any of those stands, except in reserved areas like state parks and the BWCA. That's starting to change. The state DNR has put together an old-growth guideline to reserve a total of 25,000 acres from logging, plus a similar quantity of "future old growth." Yet more stands would be designated for "extended rotation," and left to grow for a few years or decades beyond prime harvestable age.

The two national forests, for their part, have stopped selling stands of red and white pine more than 120 years old. Forest officials also say they have plans for further protections, though no decisions are being made pending the writing of the next 10-year management plan. Public-comment periods are expected to begin in April.

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