REGIONAL— A recently completed audit of state forest management gave the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources generally high marks, while concurring with conservation groups that more needs to …
REGIONAL— A recently completed audit of state forest management gave the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources generally high marks, while concurring with conservation groups that more needs to be done to understand the environmental consequences of recent policy changes affecting rotation ages on some timber stands, particularly red pine.
The review, conducted for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), as part of a recertification process that happens every five years, is required for the state to retain certification by the organization. As part of the review, independent auditors visit timber sales, inspect records and policies, and interview DNR staff and other stakeholders before issuing their report on how well the landowner is complying with the principles of FSC. While recertification takes place every five years, independent auditors also conduct annual reviews to ensure compliance. “It’s kind of a check-up with the doctor to see if we’re walking the talk,” said Tim Beyer, who oversees the forest certification program for the DNR.
The Minnesota DNR, which manages about 4.5 million acres of commercial forest in the state, is the largest landowner in North America whose timberlands are certified by FSC. For wood products manufacturers that operate in the state, the certification provides value in the marketplace, as some large home products retailers, such as Home Depot, have come to insist on certified lumber in their stores.
While the audits have generally generated little notice, recent policy changes by the DNR, that significantly shortened the rotation age of planted red pine, prompted some conservation groups to weigh in with auditors more forcefully during their visit last fall. The groups argue that the DNR’s policy changes don’t conform with the guidelines established by FSC and they wanted to see the auditors pressure the DNR to reconsider.
Most of those policy changes were approved back in 2012, but their impact is only beginning to be seen on the ground. The DNR’s recent implementation of a significantly shorter rotation period for planted red pine and the elimination of the DNR’s extended rotation forestry policy for other forest types has re-energized conservationists on an issue that they had once seen as a major victory for environmental protection.
The FSC audit did address those concerns, issuing what’s known as a “minor Correction Action Request” or CAR, requiring the DNR to assess the environmental impacts of the shortened rotations for planted pine. The FSC guidelines require that environmental impacts be assessed prior to logging or other site disturbance, but the auditors noted that the DNR could only provide auditors with a financial defense of their decision. “Most concerns expressed by stakeholders about the decision pertain to the potential environmental/ecological impacts of the shortened rotations,” noted the auditors in their report, issued in December.
The auditors are requesting that the DNR provide evidence demonstrating that it identified and considered the potential environmental impacts of applying the new policies.
Don Arnosti, of the Izaak Walton League of Minnesota, said he was generally satisfied with the auditors’ approach. “I think they could have done more,” he said. “If I were writing it, it would have been stronger wording, but a minor CAR is something they can’t ignore. This says they can’t just make decisions based on economics.”
DNR officials say they were pleased with the results of the audit and note that the two minor CARs issued by the auditors is a significant improvement over some of the early years of the DNR’s certification. “We’ve been in this game for 18 years now,” said Beyer, “and the number of CARs have definitely decreased over that time.”
Strong marks overall
While the auditors did request some changes this time, their findings, in general, suggested an agency that is doing a good job of managing the state’s forests, while providing sustainable yields, making excellent utilization of its forest products, and involving a wide variety of stakeholders. In addition, the audit found that the DNR has demonstrated its commitment to the principles of the certification process.
Forrest Boe, Director of the DNR’s Division of Forestry, says he sees real value in the process, for the DNR and the state’s wood products industry, which wants certified raw material. “I just think it’s really good to have an outside third party evaluate your systems and processes. We certainly see value in that.”
He’s not alone. While the oversight provided by the certification process may not be as rigorous as some conservationists might like, Arnosti said it’s clear the process has value by increasing accountability. “It’s putting the DNR through the paces and that’s good,” he said.
Among the findings of the 2014 audit, notes Arnosti, was a minor CAR requiring the DNR to retrain foresters about the importance of leaving a diversity of “leave trees” on logging sites. Most timber sales in the state now require that loggers leave a certain number of trees to ensure some age and species diversity as the forests regrow. But Arnosti said, too often, foresters were only designating unmarketable timber, such as red maple, as leave trees, even though state guidelines call for more diversity.
In the past, said Arnosti, when such concerns were raised by conservationists, they often fell on deaf ears. But that’s no longer the case, he said, with certification. “Now they really do have to go out and retrain their staff.”
Legislature behind the recent changes
Much of the recent change in forest policy regarding planted red pine has come at the behest of the Minnesota Legislature, which amended the law applying to the management of lands belonging to the state’s school trust three years ago. The change in law, combined with a 2012 order from the DNR commissioner, stated that the maximization of economic return from school trust lands was now the highest priority for managers. On most school trust lands, which are overwhelmingly found in northern Minnesota, logging is the primary means of generating that return. As a result of the order, the DNR shortened the rotation age of planted red pine from their previous policy—which called for final harvest at 100-120 years— to just 60-70 years.
Conservationists like Arnosti cried foul, noting that the change would affect most red pine stands on state land. While planted red pine stands, or plantations, aren’t known for their providing quality wildlife habitat, Arnosti said with the right management and with a longer rotation, the stands do begin to provide more ecological benefits over time.
DNR forestry officials say the change isn’t as dramatic as it seems, in part because the law and the commissioner’s order also calls for sound conservation measures. They say sound conservation, which includes detailed site-level harvesting guidelines, is usually consistent with maximizing economic return from the state’s forests.