The Lore of the Pines
The bonfire is gone, covered by two feet of new snow. There are no tracks except for the ones made by your snowshoes, intricate figure-eight patterns laid down with a rhythmic crunch. After a few hundred feet on the forest road you turn right, down a slight incline and up another. Trees draw your eyes upward along their copper trunks. The breeze from a faraway blizzard throws snow from the crowns 80 feet above; it lands in soft thuds. A branch snaps underfoot, and crows rise screeching.
This is the Little Alfie timber sale, the one that made news in the weeks before Christmas. Environmentalists had gotten hold of documents showing that the U.S. Forest Service hadn't done a required environmental assessment before selling the 100-plus-year pines to a local sawmill operator for about $100 each. Earth First! moved in. A lawsuit was filed. The Forest Service blinked. Environmentalists cheered.
But look deeper into the forest, and the picture shifts. There's a clearing in the distance, and if you listen close, the sound of a
logging truck comes in on the breeze. Another one will be here when the paperwork is complete, if not in a few months then next year. The cry of "Victory at Little Alfie," as Earth First!'s press release put it, may have been premature. And besides, victory for exactly what?
Ten thousand years ago, when the ice retreated, boreal forests took hold on the shores of glacial Lake Agassiz; then, as the climate warmed, the pines marched in from the east. They did well on the rocky soils, among the frequent fires that burned other trees but merely scarred their thick bark. They spread south to Lake Mille Lacs and west almost to the Rainy River, reaching their zenith around 4,000 years ago.
There are three kinds of pine in Minnesota--red, white, and jack--but only one holds mythical significance. "Perhaps no other tree in the world has had so momentous a career" as the white pine, wrote naturalist Donald Culross Peattie in his 1948 book A Natural History of Trees. "Certainly no other has played so great a role in the life and history of the American people."
Pinus strobus, once you've seen it, is impossible to miss--its emerald, feathery needles, five to a bunch, its furrowed black bark, its pagoda-like silhouette of strong branches held at the top of a tapered trunk. And, of course, its wood, white on the outside and reddish at the heart, incomparably straight and clear and capable of holding its shape.
Not all the white pine legends are true. They never reached the size of the giant redwoods out west; most grew no more than 150 feet tall, and four or five feet across at the base. They didn't cover all of northern Minnesota, in perfect groves as far as the eye could see; they grew among other trees, or by themselves in the occasional clump, making up less than 10 percent of the forest. The woods weren't "virgin;" native people cut them, burned them, and cultivated the soil beneath them for crops.
But there were a lot of big trees, which is why the loggers followed them all the way from New England. It had taken less than two centuries to log most of the "pineries" of the northeast, supplying masts for Britain's fleet and for the slave ships, and less than one century to strip Wisconsin and Michigan to build the cities of the East. Minnesota held the last of the white pine, on land taken from the Ojibway in the treaties of 1837, 1842, and 1854.
The scale of the logging still boggles the imagination. It's estimated that Minnesota in 1897 had 3.5 million acres of white pine, or about 20 times the size of the seven-county metro. By 1930, all but a fraction of it had been cut. Something like 68 billion board feet of pine was taken out of the state during that time--enough, if stacked on a city block, to make a pile three miles high.
And if the trees of New England had been cut largely by self-made, independent lumberjacks, Minnesota saw the advent of the "lumber barons," the Weyerhaeusers and Carnegies and Rockefellers. They had the capital to build sawmills for a mass market; they could build railroads and bring in equipment to go after the iron ore under the forest floor. Those trees didn't just build cities--Chicago after the fire, Des Moines, St. Paul and Minneapolis--but some of the period's greatest personal fortunes.
By the early 1930s it was all over. The loggers were dead, or unemployed, or working in the mines. Some were trying to make a living from the cutover lands. But the soil in which forests grow isn't usually good for farming, and most of the homesteaders failed by the second generation. The trees began to grow back.
It was a different forest. Aspen, whose roots stay alive after it's cut (some of today's aspen are growing on root systems 30,000 years old), sent up its shoots and spread its winged seed. Balsam fir followed, and paper birch. The fast-growing trees choked out most of the pine seedlings. Deer, which thrived in the new forest's tasty young vegetation, chewed up the rest. Perhaps the greatest damage came when it suddenly became fashionable to plant white pine. Nurseries had seedlings grown in Europe to aid the process, and those trees brought with them a new fungus called blister rust to which American pines had no resistance.
Today Minnesota has about 60 percent of the forest area it had before Europeans came--but only about 2 percent of the white pines. And their wood is more valuable than ever.
Lumber statistics are usually expressed in board feet; one board foot is a piece of wood a foot square and an inch thick. A good-size pine will hold between 300 and 400 board feet. On average, 1,000 board feet of white pine "on the stump"--two and a half or three live trees--now sell for $200 to $250, more than any other kind of wood and up 300 percent from 10 years ago. Red pine, pinus strobus's coarser cousin, is not far behind. And even for that kind of money, it's not often you get a good-size stand of mature pine. Which is why Tony Vukelich jumped on the chance.
A tall man with a soft voice and a gray mustache, Vukelich has spent most of his life in Orr, the town of 265 that hugs the eastern shore of Pelican Lake and serves as a gateway to both the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park. Despite its spectacular location, Orr never turned into the kind of tourism haven Ely did, 50 miles to the east. This remains timber country, and it's hard to drive for more than 10 minutes on U.S. Highway 53 and not encounter a logging truck.
Four miles north of Orr is Cusson (pronounced "Cousin"), a town of nine that was once home to more than 4,000 loggers. The Virginia and Rainy Lake timber company--owners: Fredric and Anna Weyerhaeuser--had its main mill here. It cut almost 2 billion board feet between 1910 and 1929. When the trees were gone, the Weyerhaeusers shut the mill down, sold most of the town to their bookkeeper, and moved west for the tall timber in Oregon.
A few years later the feds turned the town into a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Again thousands worked here, this time building roads and planting pine seedlings. Then Cusson sat abandoned once more. Vukelich--a former schoolteacher, carpenter, and logger--bought part of the old mill in 1981. He named his business Cusson Camp Company (CCC); its logo is modeled after the old CCC badge bearing a pine tree.
Cusson Camp makes specialty wood products, the only way an outfit this small can survive. His vintage 1940s equipment saws posts and rafters for log homes and post-and-beam structures. Demand for the rustic mansions, which take up to twice as much the wood of an average frame structure, is rising as affluent retirees flock to the lake country.
Last month, Vukelich hired a contract logger to cut a stand of pine he'd bid high on at a Superior National Forest auction. If everything worked out, the 17-or-so truckloads of wood would keep him and his half-dozen employees in business for most of this year and next. But when the logger pulled into the sale on December 9, he found a bunch of people camped in the middle of the road by a big bonfire. One wore a Smokey Bear costume.
Vukelich took it about as well as anyone might have. He didn't demand that the Forest Service clear the protesters out and enforce his contract. He sat tight for two weeks, meeting with environmentalists and the Forest Service, taking reporters' calls and scratching his head. At one point it looked as if a compromise, involving mainstream environmental groups like the Audubon Society, had been found. Then there was a lawsuit from a tiny organization called Earth Protector, and the Forest Service decided to take time out for an environmental assessment. That won't be done before the end of the winter.
Like most of the small-time forest entrepreneurs up here, Vukelich considers himself a good steward. He shudders at the way the trees were cut the first time around; he's read all about sustainable forestry and is in favor of government making sure more trees grow than are taken out. But he also knows that natural-growth pine, as opposed to the stuff on plantations, makes the best lumber you're ever going to find. And if the Forest Service tells him that Little Alfie is ready for harvest, he's inclined to believe it. These are, he points out, professionals.
Some 60 miles southeast of Cusson, Lynn Rogers's Northwoods Research Institute sits under tall pines by a lake. Inside, light reflects softly off wood paneling, wood floors, wood doors. There are crammed bookshelves, papers scattered on desks and on the floor, a computer and a fax machine. And, of course, bears--in color and black and white, on posters and postcards and mugs.
Rogers is an internationally recognized researcher, a wildlife photographer, and a good part of the reason why the black bear has gone from a vaguely threatening memory to a northwoods icon. Until not long ago he worked for the Forest Service, tracking bears out of a research center near Ely.
Some years ago on his rounds, Rogers says, he was struck by how mother bears would walk long distances to find a white pine, depositing their young at its base as with a baby sitter before going off to forage. The reason, he eventually discovered, was that the pine made perfect refuge. Cubs that couldn't scale the bark of other trees would climb up its solid furrows and sit for hours in the shade of its crown.
Intrigued, Rogers found that other animals were also drawn to pinus strobus. Almost 80 percent of the eagle and osprey nests in the Superior National Forest were in white pines, whose branches accommodated their six-foot wing spans and nests weighing up to a ton. Woodpeckers loved the trunks and so did bats. When the trees' cores rotted out, hollows appeared to make bear dens.
Then Rogers noticed something else. Pines where he'd watched cubs take shelter and eagles nest were stumps the next time he came by. And in the forest around them no new ones were coming up.
Undisturbed, a white pine will live to between 300 and 400 years. In Minnesota's pre-logging forest, about half of the pines at any given time were more than 120 years old. Today, only 3 percent reach that age, and only 19 percent are younger than 60. "The majority of these trees," Rogers says, "are only a quarter into their life cycle. They're teenagers. We're missing the grandparents and the children."
Rogers's most startling discovery came when he looked at the plan his employers the Forest Service had prepared for its timber harvest. If current policy continued, a 1986 document showed, the acreage of Superior National Forest consisting of pine older than 70 years would be reduced 87 percent by 2035, shrinking from 32,500 acres to 4,400 acres. And that was for red and white pine. With foresters guessing that only 20 percent of those mixed forests were made up of white pine, mature white pines would cover no more than 1,000 of the Superior National Forest's acres, or about one and a half square miles.
In 1991, Rogers started started telling his bosses that no more white pines should be cut pending a study of their future. Then-Superior chief David Filius responded in an "eyes-only" memo to a colleague that such advice, "though well intended, is not what is needed. We see no need to come at the issue from quite the preservation perspective that Lynn proposes. We're actually being accused of underharvesting, so you can see how this pulls us both ways."
A few months after that--and after Rogers had handed a copy of an article he'd written on white pines to Dale Robertson, then-chief of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.--the service began an investigation of him. It searched for evidence of a variety of offenses including taking wildlife photos on government time for personal gain, violating building policies, and sexual harassment. He was fired in 1993, but appealed because many of the service's key witnesses claimed their statements were misconstrued or made up. Rather than letting the case go to a judge, his former employer offered a settlement featuring a pension, health benefits, and $27,000 worth of legal fees.
Forest Service officials won't comment much about the matter these days, but Rogers insists he was framed because of his white-pine advocacy. He loved his job, he says, so he built his own institute and is now working with former colleagues to start an International Bear Center in Ely.
And he's still talking about white pines. He's put together a slide show for lectures around the state, and last year he was among the driving forces behind a legislative proposal to ban logging of white pines on state land for 18 months. The bill was opposed by the state Department of Natural Resources and never came to a floor vote. It's likely to be reintroduced this year.
Meanwhile, though, the DNR has come up with a tried-and-true response: Forming a task force. It's called the White Pine Regeneration Strategies Work Group and includes representatives from the Forest Service, the DNR, and the University of Minnesota, plus a lone environmentalist. Officials considered appointing Rogers but decided against it because, they said, he would have wanted to "deal with policy before dealing with technical questions."
Last month the task force came up with a report that was widely acclaimed for its recommendations on helping seedlings grow, but remained vague on restricting the harvest. "Everyone wants to see more white pines in the future," Rogers says. "But no one has unselfishness enough to say, 'Let's stop cutting some of the 2 percent that's left.' They try to snow us with things like, 'We've got to cut them to save them.' I don't buy that. We've been cutting them for over a century, and only 2 percent came back."
Incidentally, even the white-pine task force's cautious recommendations aren't getting much response. Last week, when Gov. Arne Carlson released his proposed budget, funds for white-pine restoration programs--including those the DNR has already started--were conspicuously absent.
As it happens, most of the Superior National Forest's old pines are in the Lacroix District, the one that also holds Little Alfie. It encompasses the forest's westernmost part, hugging the Boundary Waters along the east and south and ending at Voyageurs Park to the north. Connie Chaney is the district ranger, and Jay Strand manages the timber program. They're the ones who drove us out in a heavy green Suburban, down the Echo Trail and along a forest road to Little Alfie.
Strand and Chaney are part of a new generation of foresters, who came to the profession in the environmental heyday of the late 1970s and early '80s. They like to camp in the wilderness and drop words like "ecosystem" the way rangers used to talk about tree "crops." "Personally, I need to know there are places like this," Chaney says. "And if this were the last one, I think I'd be in here blocking the logging trucks myself."
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."
In other words: Clearcut larger stretches of land--forest regulations allow up to 200 acres in some areas--and don't bother leaving too many large trees standing. "We need to meet our output targets," Filius continued, "and we need not worry about overharvesting because that won't happen."
One more thing bears noting about Filius's memo: His reference to the "below-cost situation." This has been a sore point with the Forest Service ever since it became known that what with the cost of building roads, doing paperwork, and surveying, it actually loses money on much of its timber--thus, in effect, providing a giant subsidy to the forest-products industry. According to a study by Congress's General Accounting Office, that subsidy amounted to more than $1 billion between 1992 and 1994. Both of Minnesota's national forests, according to the study, were big losers; Superior at one point made as little as 27 cents on the dollar.
The Forest Service has other figures, which show it making money or at least not losing as much. According to those figures, Superior for two years has turned a profit on commercial timber. What puts it in the hole, to the tune of $160,000 in 1995, are things like letting people cut firewood, Christmas trees, and boughs for wreathmaking.
Critics, in turn, say both sets of numbers underestimate actual losses by glossing over a key detail: That unlike farmers, who have to grow their crop before they can sell it, U.S. foresters are still drawing on a resource "account" built up over centuries without much human intervention. This is one reason why American logs are so desirable for export to countries that depleted their reserves centuries ago. "What the forest service tells us is that if they spend $500 on roads, $500 on forester time, and $500 on planting, and they get $1,600 for the sale, they've just made $100 profit," notes Don Arnosti, who heads the Minnesota chapter of the Audubon Society. "But those trees grew for 70, 80, 100 years--or, in the case of a Douglas fir in the Pacific Northwest, 800 years. That ecological capital is not being accounted for."
Regardless of how the numbers are spun, it's clear that the main reason for selling timber from public lands isn't to make money for the Treasury--which actually hasn't seen a penny of the revenues in years--but to supply raw materials. Forest Service officials readily acknowledge as much; they've calculated that by the end of the decade only 2.7 percent of the income generated by national forests--including jobs created in surrounding areas--will come from timber sales, compared to almost 75 percent from recreation.
All of which four years ago was enough to get the Clinton administration to propose killing the timber programs in 62 unprofitable forests, including Superior. The idea caused a howl of protest from industry and didn't go anywhere. But it did give a lot of foresters the downsizing jitters and made them all the more determined to fix the "below-cost situation."
Now back to Little Alfie: Because sawtimber is so valuable, forests by and large make the most money when they sell big, old trees. And in the Superior, that pretty much means pine. In 1996, pine (red, white, and jack) made up less than 1 percent of the total volume of timber the Superior National Forest put up for sale, but 24 percent of the value. The 3,500 pines marked for harvest at Little Alfie, Strand says, are expected to bring in $195,000 on costs of just over $52,000.
As it turns out, though, Strand and others weren't always convinced it was worth it. Strand says he noticed the problem when he reviewed the documentation for the sale after starting at Lacroix in 1994: Little Alfie had never had the environmental analysis required under federal law. It was part of a larger area for which such an analysis had been prepared in 1989, but that study was overly broad and possibly outdated.
According to a memo Strand put together in early '95, the original plan for Little Alfie had been to clearcut. That was changed after the district's wildlife biologist, Don Potter, sounded the alarm, warning that this kind of old stand was too valuable to eliminate. "The decision [to thin] was a compromise to keep from losing the stand altogether, it is not silviculturally or ecologically the best we could do," Potter wrote, "but those that have [timber-harvest] targets backing them have the biggest stick."
Strand seems to have agreed; he was, according to another memo, "very concerned about [environmental] documentation and silvicultural soundness of the decision." And whatever it did, he correctly predicted, the service was in for trouble.
"In a worst-case scenario," Strand concluded, "the implementation of this sale may contribute to the deterioration of our credibility to the public or lead to the loss of our timber program altogether... I'm at wit's end." The final decision was up to then-Superior National Forest Superintendent Kathleen McAllister. She gave the go-ahead. McAllister has since been promoted to a deputy regional forester position in Montana.
It was this series of memos (marked "Do Not File in Public Files") that Ray Fenner--head of the Superior Wilderness Action Network and probably the most dogged watcher of national forest issues in Minnesota--discovered by chance last fall. Fenner asked that the sale be withdrawn. When it wasn't, he sent the documents to the press.
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.
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."
Clearly, one reason why white pine evokes such strong feelings is a sense of guilt. It's hard not to feel at least vaguely embarrassed when looking at the old pictures of men putting saws to giant trunks, of logs jamming rivers and vast stump landscapes. A few years ago, writer William Cronon picked up on that feeling in an essay called "The Trouble with Wilderness," which chronicled how environmental debate had focused on protecting nature by fencing it off.
Places like the Boundary Waters (or, in a smaller way, Little Alfie) drew their emotional pull, Cronon argued, from the hope that there, humans' environmental sins might be expiated, the scars of the past erased. It was a hope especially seductive in a world where environmental destruction continued apace: The last pristine places came to represent "an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world."
Of course, set-aside "nature" never was as wild and free as we'd like to think. The BWCA, for example, is a much different place than it would have been without human intervention. Eighty percent of its forest have been logged. Its trails, portages, and campgrounds are cleaned up and brushed out, at great expense, each year. Most important, the wildfires that were an integral part of the northwoods ecosystem--at times consuming tens of thousands of acres in an afternoon--have been gone for the better part of a century. White pines, like many other species, depended on those fires. And though there's growing interest in returning fire to the area, it will never burn the way it used to--there are too many commercial forests, cabins, and campers nearby.
Which leads to an odd situation. If you fence off a stand of pinus strobus alone in Minnesota today, it's possible that it will grow very old and look like some of what was once here. It's also possible that in the understory, few if any white pines will come up--because, in part, of the fungus brought in during an earlier effort to restore them. And finally, it's possible that if the story of the white pine's return to Minnesota is ever written, one of its heroes may be a big-time sawmiller.
Rajala (pronounced "Ry-la") owns Rajala Companies, which makes dimensional lumber, paneling, and the stock for everything from moldings to window sashes. At its peak, the firm's Grand Rapids mill sawed something like 5 million board feet of white pine each year. Today it's a bigger operation, but only a fraction of what it cuts is pine.
Rajala Cos. also owns some 35,000 acres of timberland, almost all of it covered with white pine. A few thousand acres are old growth, but most are the result of 25 years' worth of planting. Rajala, who talks about his trees the way some people discuss roses, has done much to disprove foresters' contention that rust, weevil, and deer had made it impossible to get white pine to grow in Minnesota. He and his workers have watered, pruned, thinned, even stapled pieces of paper to buds to protect them from browsing. "We've planted roughly 2 million seedlings," he says. "The first million got chewed up pretty bad, and the second million is in good shape and on its way."
Rajala's success doesn't mean every square inch of white pine in the state needs to be turned into a nursery in order to survive; as some of the remaining untouched parcels show there is still some regeneration capacity left in the pine. By the same, token his is as good a model of a living, breathing, and working forest as any. One environmentalist who's walked it says you feel "as if you're in old growth, except that there are stumps here and there."
It's worth noting that Rajala gets no subsidies to plant his trees, and--other than some nice PR--no special favors. And if he lives to be 100, the first trees he planted will still be at least 30 years away from prime sawtimber age. "I'm never going to harvest a tree that's been planted under my watch," he says. "It makes no difference to me. I just look at it as a long pipe. I'm drawing water off that pipe that's been supplied at the other end. The trees I've planted, someone else will draw off that pipe. Trees are that way. Our plan is to grow big trees. Sawmillers love big trees. Unfortunately, the public does too." He laughs.
Rajala, of course, is no saint. Though he says one day his mill--whoever owns it by then--should be able to meet all of its white pine needs from the trees he's planting now, he also harvests plenty of wood from public and private lands. He's also a member of and frequent spokesman for Minnesota Forest Industries, a trade group which has argued that the national forests are harvesting only about half as much as they should. If the feds were to cut trees the way the group has suggested, they would be running at double or triple the rate Rajala does on his own land.
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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