The Lore of the Pines

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

But policies and guidelines are one thing; the real world is another. On the front lines, demand for wood and especially sawtimber remains strong--all the more so because no one knows how much longer the big trees will be available. Timber harvests are at record levels on private lands, which make up 40 percent of Minnesota forests and whose old growth has never been counted. And just last year, the Superior National Forest announced a timber sale near Grand Marais that included some of the largest white-pine stands outside the BWCA. Environmentalists appealed, but were told that the trees weren't protected because they were less than 120 years old.

It turns out that forest management is one of those waterbed situations--push down in one corner, and the pressure pops up in another. Driven by public pressure and their own scientific advisers, top forest brass will probably come up with protection for various pockets of old growth, especially pine. That much is suggested, for example, in discussion papers Superior officials have drawn up. But those same discussion papers also say that total harvests from the forests "will have to be recalculcated" based on, among other things, "expanding forest industries."

"What you can end up with," says John Pastor, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Natural Resources Research Institute, "is having beautiful, big, old trees in a few places, and all around ever more intensely managed stands of trees that never get older than 30 years. Maybe people want that. I don't know."

Anthropologists speculate that we like certain landscapes--savannahs and groves with tall shade trees--because it's where we came from, where we feel safe. Cultural critics point to the way trees remind us of cathedrals, or vice versa. Ecologists observe that people, as Pastor puts it, "always have the same two reactions when they get near a big tree. The first is that you look up and say, 'Oh my God.' The second is that you want to walk over and touch it. I do it, too. It's an instinctive thing."

Whatever the reason, "cathedrals of nature," as 18th-century naturalists used to call them, have long been the focus of preservation efforts. National parks were established at the tops of mountains, next to waterfalls and amid stately trees. There, it was promised to people increasingly removed from everyday contact with trees and mountains, nature would remain wild, free, and sublime.

By contrast, much of what remains of Minnesota's forest doesn't look very impressive. There are tens of thousands of acres of black spruce, a scrawny-looking tree that likes to grow in swamps, and provides shelter for snowshoe hare and lynx. There's the feathery tamarack, the tree that has suffered the greatest decimation in Minnesota from presettlement days, and to whose remaining stands loggers are now turning their attention. There are patches of white spruce, everyone's favorite Christmas tree, of which there are fewer old specimens left than white pine. And there's the lowly jack pine, endowed with an amazing capacity to survive in poor, rocky soils, and a cone that only pops open under intense heat. Jack pine's wood is a bit knotty, but it will do in a pinch and is getting an increasingly hard look from the pulp and board mills.

And it's not just trees. Functioning northern forests--that is, those where a variety of species live and feed off each other--may rival the scientific and, perhaps, medicinal wealth of the Amazon rain forest. A lot of the life forms involved "aren't very glamorous," admits Kurt Resterholz of the state DNR's Natural Heritage Program. "We're talking about lichens, mosses, microrhizal fungi. Right now we know almost nothing about those, except that they probably play crucial roles in the life of the forest, and that many of them are quite rare now."

There is, among some of the people who study the more unglamorous species, a movement to reconsider endangered-species protection: Rather than individual plants or critters, they worry about the disappearance of entire ecosystems. Old red and white pine forests have been named as threatened, but so have jack-pine forests, riverbottom willowbrush, and Minnesota's "Big Woods" of maple, basswood, and oak. Many of these ecosystems aren't in protected national parks or wilderness areas; they're scattered among houses and roads, or in the "timber management areas" of the national forests.

Just a few months ago, as things were getting ready to hit the fan with Little Alfie, the Forest Service announced another sale not far away. Some 777 acres of mostly black spruce and aspen were to be clearcut, and some replanted with red and white pine. Mike Biltonen, who runs a relatively new group called the Minnesota Ecosystem Recovery Project, is preparing to appeal the sale, but he says it's hard to get attention or dollars for that kind of endeavor.

"The environmental movement has focused on message species," Biltonen says. "The best example ever is the panda bear, such a cute, cuddly little thing. White pines are the same way. They're a majestic, huge old tree. The wolf falls into the same category, and the grizzly bear. Jack pine and aspen stands don't."

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