Can old growth forests be restored?

HovlandResidents of Cook County were curious this fall about some forest management work that occurred on public land along the Arrowhead Trail, Pincushion Mountain, Pike Lake Road and Moose Valley Road. The underbrush was cleared from beneath mature trees. The resulting park-like forest appeared to be the opposite of a traditional timber harvest. So, what’s going on?

These are ongoing forest management projects that aim to restore long-lived conifer species, such as white pine, white spruce and white cedar, that were common on the North Shore prior to European settlement. Early logging and subsequent wildfires eliminated much of the original old growth forests, which grew back to early successional species such as birch and aspen.

The human-caused disturbances greatly altered wildlife habitat. Forests that once supported woodland caribou became more conducive to species such as moose and white-tailed deer, both of which thrive in early successional forests. Deer browse on white pine and cedar has greatly limited regrowth of those native species. Also, white pine is very susceptible to invasive blister rust, which has hindered some past attempts to restore the species.

Sarah Poznanovic, a natural resources specialist working for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said the sites will be planted next spring with white pine, white cedar, yellow birch, white spruce, and paper birch. To foil browsing deer, all but the white spruce will be caged with fencing. The fencing is similar to strategies used by the state parks and other organizations along the shore to protect seedling from deer. Computer models suggest that white pine will do well on the shore in the future. Elsewhere along the North Shore, trees that typically grow in a somewhat warmer environment, such as northern red oak, have been planted, too. The red oaks come from the Chippewa National Forest in north-central Minnesota.

Two grants are funding the old growth forests restoration work along the North Shore. One is the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership/Lake Superior North Shore Coastal Forest Restoration Project, which is a partnership between NRCS and the USFS. The other is a Conservation Partners Legacy (CPL) grant, which is a partnership between Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and USFS. The Joint Chief’s project area covers approximately 270,000 acres of land from Two Harbors to Grand Portage within roughly 3.5 miles of the lake shore. The CPL grant focuses on restoration work on state and federal lands within and near Cascade State Park. Through these projects, land managers intend to protect water quality, provide wildlife habitat and develop a resilient future ecosystem where uncertain climatic conditions may exist.

One of the challenges to reforestation on the North Shore is the mix of land ownership. About 40 percent of the land is privately owned with the remainder a mix of federally owned national forest, state parks, county lands and tribal property.

For the Joint Chief’s project, 275 acres were planted in 2015 and 2016 on federal land. An additional 322 acres are planned to be planted in 2017. For the CPL grant, 354 acres were planted on state and federal land from 2014-16, with 173 acres planned for 2017.

For more information on forest management plans, visit northshoreforest.org.Shawn Perich