REGIONAL— A new DNR study, and the recommendations that come from it, could determine whether state forests are managed primarily for timber production, or for a combination of wood products and …
REGIONAL— A new DNR study, and the recommendations that come from it, could determine whether state forests are managed primarily for timber production, or for a combination of wood products and wildlife habitat. Should the state’s forests be managed mostly for industry, with short rotations and a limited diversity of tree species? And, if so, what are consequences to recreation, scenic beauty, and wildlife? If the state’s forests are managed primarily to enhance wildlife habitat, what are the consequences for timber production and jobs in the region’s wood products industry?
These are some of the questions and potential tradeoffs examined in the new Sustainable Timber Harvest Analysis, which the DNR released earlier this month. It doesn’t provide definitive answers or recommendations on its own. Instead, it predicts the impacts of nearly 20 differing alternatives, ranging from plans that focus on enchancing wildlife habitat to others that focus on cutting as much timber as possible.
The DNR is supposed to use the data to develop a recommendation for the Legislature in March about whether the state can increase the timber harvest from current levels, and if so, by how much.
Officials from the wood products industry urged Gov. Mark Dayton and the DNR to increase the amount of timber sold from state lands in a bid to hold down stumpage prices. They’ve suggested the state can sustainably harvest one million cords of wood per year from state-managed forest lands, or about 25 percent more than the current annual harvest of about 800,000 cords. The governor directed the DNR to study that possibility and come back with findings. A 14-member stakeholders advisory group, convened by the DNR, will use the study, and public comments they receive until the end of the month to formulate the recommendations.
One of the stakeholders in that process says the modeling effort is better than he’s seen in the past. “This is a next generation analysis compared to many of the forest modeling exercises I’ve been involved with in the past,” said Don Arnosti, conservation director with the Minnesota chapter of the Izaak Walton League. “It’s an attempt to show a different array of options,” he said.
Those options range from a wildlife-friendly harvest level of about 650,000 cords per year to an intensive harvest plan that would generate about 1.1 million cords per year for 15-20 years before declining to about 900,000 cords annually. The short-term spike in harvests would be possible, notes the analysis, due to what it describes as a “large supply of mature and older wood” on state lands. Some of that older forest was built up by design as part of the DNR’s decision to manage for wildlife values as well as timber production. In other cases, the wood is inaccessible, which has made it difficult to market to loggers.
The consultants who developed the report, Portland, Ore.-based Mason, Bruce & Girard, assumed that loggers would continue to comply with site-level best management practices in their maximum harvest scenario, but said it did not allow for broader wildlife objectives, nor did it consider marketability factors, which could otherwise reduce the DNR’s ability to increase harvest levels.
One of those marketability factors, notes Arnosti, is the increasing difficulty that many loggers face in accessing winter wood. He noted that the region is already feeling the effects of climate change, and that’s reducing the period of time that loggers can traverse northern Minnesota’s vast wetlands, particularly peat bogs. “If you’re a logger in Koochiching County and 80 percent of your wood is winter wood, you may be in trouble,” said Arnosti. “The freeze-up season is shortening.”
Arnosti said the study’s failure to assess the implications of climate change represents its biggest shortcoming, because it’s going to impact accessibility to so much of the northern Minnesota land base.
Impacts to wildlife
The prospect of an increase is harvest levels, particularly in the aspen breadbasket in Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis counties, is worrisome to more than environmentalists like Arnosti. While DNR supervisors are prohibiting lower level wildlife officials from commenting on the sustainability study, many have made their concerns about existing harvest levels, and a push by DNR foresters to shorten rotations for many tree species, public in the past. They argue that without older forests, which provide nesting cavities for species like fisher, or winter cover for game species like whitetail deer, wildlife in general will struggle to survive.
Tower Area Wildlife Manager Tom Rusch, earlier this year, cited intensive harvest activity in deer permit areas 119 and 108 as a primary factor behind the slow recovery of the deer herd in those areas. While deer generally benefit from increased browse availability in the immediate aftermath of logging, Rusch said there’s an extended period as new aspen grows back, where the sites offer little useful habitat for deer and make them more vulnerable to the effects of winter.
DNR research has also shown that species like fisher require large diameter trees, particularly aspen, for denning cavities. Wildlife managers note that shorter rotations mean trees, like aspen, will never get large enough in the future to develop such cavities. They also worry that stands managed on short rotations tend to lose diversity of understory trees, like balsam fir, which is an important tree for wildlife in the boreal forest.
Supporters of higher harvests note that the DNR analysis only considers state lands. And they argue that harvest levels are significantly less intense on many private lands, as well as on federal ownership, and that those lands can provide for wildlife habitat needs.
“Forest management is always about trade-offs,” said Arnosti. “If we have cornfields for forests, we could max out at 900 cords long-term,” he says. “That would come at the cost of old forest objectives, and forest habitat that comes with older forest. Some of us would be objecting very strongly to that.”