Managing rock outcrops

Legacy dollars will help restore overgrown areas near Orr

M. Helmberger
Rock outcrops are common in the North Country and provide a number of benefits to wildlife as well as berry-pickers.
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL— The frequent outcrops of ancient rock that punctuate the rolling terrain of northern St. Louis and Lake counties are one of the surest signs that you’ve entered Canadian Shield country— part of a vast region that stretches from Newfoundland to Alberta, and dips south of the Canadian border exclusively in northeastern Minnesota.

Rock outcrops provide an interesting and important habitat on the shield, since the bare rock, or extremely shallow soils, often create openings in otherwise uninterrupted forests. Those openings provide space for sun-loving and fire-resistant plants, like scrub oaks, grasses, and blueberries, which make them attractive habitat for many species of wildlife, as well as human berry pickers.

Traditionally, frequent natural fires played a critical role in maintaining the open nature of rock outcrops in the North Country. But with the institution of fire suppression more a century ago, such outcroppings have, in many cases, become overgrown with brush and trees like balsam fir, red maple, and birch, and that has changed the character of these areas, according to Penny Backman, a wildlife specialist with the Orr office of the Department of Natural Resources.

Backman has focused for some time on the unique characteristics and special needs of rock outcrop habitats in far northeastern Minnesota. And with Legacy dollars from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, she has additional funding to enhance rock outcrop habitats in the Lost River area, north of Orr. According to Backman, the outcrops in the area have a significant amount of scrub oak, which will benefit from the management. In turn, she said, wildlife like deer, bear, and ruffed grouse will benefit from the acorns, which are an important fall food source.

By late November, a DNR-hired contractor will remove all competing woody vegetation from around red oak, white pine, jack pine and red pine growing in several locations and totaling about 54 acres. While most forest management in the region is done through timber sales, Backman said that’s generally not possible with rock outcrops, since the shallow soils make these areas unproductive for merchantable timber.

DNR officials hope that the removal of the fire-sensitive species, such as balsam fir and maple, will mimic the effects of a low intensity wildfire, and help to restore the traditional plant composition of the outcrops. Previous projects included similar handwork and some use of low-intensity prescribed fire, according to Backman. While the upcoming project will be on state land, Backman has worked in cooperation with federal and county land managers on similar projects on outcrops managed by those agencies.

Funding for these projects is provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, created after voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in November 2008, which increased sales tax by three-eighths of one percent. The fund receives one-third of the sales tax dollars and may only be spent to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for game fish and wildlife.

The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, made up of citizen and legislative members, reviews project proposals for the Outdoor Heritage Fund and makes funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature for approval.


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Cutting cross country and coming onto a nice opening made from a rock out crop is always neat.

Oak is usually pretty rare up in the Ely area,wonder if that will change if the seasons of warmth get longer?

Monday, August 25, 2014 | Report this