Slicing the Forest

IT'S QUIET UNDER the trees. Barely 100 yards from the road, you hear little but the wind and an odd chirping that could be a frog. Maple branches are red with buds; sunlight filters through, feeding spring's ephemeral wildflowers. They'll disappear when the canopy closes into the deep shade of summer.

At one point much of south-central Minnesota, including most of Hennepin County, looked like this. It was called the Big Woods, an expanse of oak-maple-basswood forest stretching north to St. Cloud, south to Faribault, and west to the edge of the prairie. Now it's one of the state's most endangered ecosystems. The Department of Natural Resources estimates that less than 1 percent of the woods is left. And that, too, is now on the chopping block.

This particular spot, in the rolling hills off Lake Minnetonka, is called Medina 26. It's a comparatively large and healthy piece of Big Woods, with trees taller than 100 feet and too big for a person to get her arms around. And if a few wealthy local denizens have their way, it will soon be the area's most scenic golf course. Under a proposal now being considered by the Orono City Council, a partnership called the Spring Hill Golf Course Association would cut more than half of the trees in Medina 26 and use the area and an adjacent 112-acre parcel to make fairways the word "exclusive" barely begins to describe. Some 180 people would pay almost $100,000 each to join.

In documents submitted to the city of Orono, the club describes its project as an environmentally responsible endeavor. Spring Hill plans to leave "significant" forest in place and replace the wetlands it fills as required by law. Spring Hill attorney Tom Crosby says a lot of effort has been put into "mitigating" the effect on the forest.

That may be, say the DNR's experts, but the outcome is still the destruction of Medina 26. "They're implying that they're leaving half of the forest," says Fred Harris, a biologist who has inventoried Big Woods remnants statewide. "But when you look at the plan, you see that they're leaving narrow strips along the fairways. And when you do that, you can't really say that you have a piece of forest left. What you have is strips of trees. That eliminates the conditions a lot of the plants and animals typically living in a forest require."

Golf-course proponents counter that fragmentation is in Medina 26's future anyway: Under current zoning, the area is eligible for subdivision into two-acre lots, the kind of wooded executive homesites that fetch a premium these days. At least, Crosby points out, the golf course would preserve open space in an area that prizes its country cache.

In theory, of course, housing or fairways aren't the only choices: The parcel could be protected by, say, a wealthy owner's decision to donate it to the public. One of Medina 26's current owners is Conley Brooks, who some years ago gave the state a nearby Big Woods parcel that became the Wolsfeld Woods Scientific and Natural Area. The other, Duncan Dayton, is the nephew of Bruce Dayton, who last winter donated the chunk of Big Woods that's now the Wood Rill SNA. One DNR official says the department has made overtures to buy Medina 26, which sits between Wolsfeld and Wood Rill, but was told it wasn't for sale. "It's kind of ironic," the official mutters. "It's like the Daytons giveth and the Daytons taketh away."

So far neither Dayton nor Brooks has given any indication of wanting to hand the forest over. Buying out the entire project would cost an estimated $5.5 million--the kind of money that only comes from a wealthy "angel" or a public bond issue. Orono officials say they aren't contemplating such a measure, in part because there hasn't been much of a clamor from citizens. Only half a dozen residents have attended public meetings on the golf course, a showing City Council member Diane Goetten attributes to the scant press the issue has received.

Other than a buyout, not much could stop the golf course. The DNR, though it's been uncommonly outspoken in its criticism, has little authority: Though endangered as ecosystems, Big Woods contain no protected plants and animals. The DNR has suggested that Orono compile an Environmental Impact Statement, which could take up to a year; the City Council last week voted to take a month to consider that suggestion. But the golf-course association has made it clear it wants to break ground by June, to be ready for play two summers from now.

 
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