The Lore of the Pines

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

For his part, Rajala says he would "never liquidate a stand of healthy white pine," though plenty of landowners have offered him as much. But there are a lot of other trees out there. The skinny northern types of basswood, oak, and maple, he notes, "happen to be quite vogue today in terms of cabinetry and so on." And on aspen, Rajala shares his industry's opinion that there's plenty more of it right now reaching harvestable age than anyone could possibly use.

Which gets back to the question of whether some kinds of nature are more deserving than others. Right now, all the focus is on pines; they are the only species for which both state and national foresters have implemented old-growth protections. By contrast, aspen-which makes up most of the mature second-growth forest--is being cut at rates that eclipse everything that happened during the white pine massacre.

Of course, industry reps and many foresters argue, it's different now because the trees are being treated as a "renewable resource." With a little care, what's cut will grow back. That seems to be true if you're talking about a forest like Rajala's; the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin has proven for about a century that one can make money from a forest and yet keep it healthy. But forests like that are rare; they cost time and money, especially compared to the highly efficient plantations that will grow another crop as few as 25 years after a clearcut.

The problem is that so far, no one's had a chance to study exactly what happens to forests from which timber is extracted at those levels. There is speculation that the same patch of ground won't yield more than three generations of trees without massive applications of fertilizer. And researchers question how long northwoods soils that started out relatively poor can keep up before they wash out or blow away. Not to mention the fact that except for deer, few species find tree farms particularly habitable.

But the way things stand, nobody talks much about those kinds of things. Instead, things are shaping up the way the UM's Pastor suggested Much ado about the occasional grove of cathedral trees, and almost complete silence about the rest. "I like what they did at Little Alfie," says Jim Woehrle, a critic of current timber harvest plans. "But I also think it's funny that that logging road will be blocked, and all around thousands of acres are going to be clearcut and nobody's going to say a thing."

"To the extent that we celebrate [reserved nature] as the measure with which we judge civilization," Cronon wrote, "we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.... If living in history means that we cannot help leaving marks on a fallen world, then the dilemma we face is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.

"[But] this will only happen if we abandon the dualism that sees the tree in the garden as artificial--completely fallen and unnatural--and the tree in the wilderness as natural--completely pristine and wild. Both trees in some ultimate sense are wild; both in a practical sense now depend on our management and care. We are responsible for both, even though we can claim credit for neither."

Which doesn't mean it's time to unleash the logging trucks onto the Boundary Waters, whose value is precisely in our capacity to hold back. But it may mean fighting as hard for aspen as for white pine, saving the black spruce and the lichen along with the oak, cutting some trees and leaving others alone. It means understanding that you can't go home again, that the forest that was will not return, and that the forest that is demands as much attention as anyone can muster. Most of all, it means reconsidering the false segregation of jobs and the environment, beauty and profit, public land and private interest. If the trees at Little Alfie have anything to say, it's probably about survival.

News Interns Kathryn Herzog and Todd Renschler contributed to this story.

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