By Shawn Perich
Red pine plantations are a familiar sight across the state forests of northern Minnesota. Planted in rows like corn, the pines grow into stately, yet unnatural forests that are often criticized for their lack of biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
Yet the orderliness of planted pines does have a certain appeal. Former DNR commissioner Alan Garber once launched an initiative to bring that sort of order to more of the forest landscape. His idea was subsequently shot down by both conservationists and some members of the timber industry. Nevertheless, pine plantations remain an important aspect of Minnesota forestry, providing a source of saw timber as well as logs for telephone poles and cabins.
Some pine plantations date to the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Back then, people tried farming on lands cleared during the early logging era. They subsequently found the land was better suited to growing trees than agricultural crops and the farms were abandoned. CCC crews planted the land to pine. Over the years, those pine plantations and others planted afterward have been thinned to provide a partial harvest and create more room for the remaining trees to grow. Periodic thinnings were intended to allow a plantation last about 100 years.
Recently the Minnesota DNR announced that it would begin managing planted red pine stands on 60- to 70-year rotations. A DNR economist found that the shorter rotation provided the best economic return. The DNR has about 75,000 acres of planted pine, including 40,000 acres located on School Trust lands. To place these numbers in perspective, DNR’s Division of Forestry has about 4.2 million acres available for timber production and harvests about 45,000 acres annually.
Craig Schmid, deputy director of the Division of Forestry says the agency will start the new policy on School Trust lands. A statewide evaluation found about 2,400 acres of 60- to 70-year-old plantations presently meet the rotation age threshold. Further analysis to determine what was available to bring to market found some plantations were along lakes and others contained ski trails or state forest campgrounds. In such locations clear-cutting wouldn’t be appreciated by the public, so foresters have been given flexibility to address these special circumstances. For example, a few stands will be managed for telephone poles and cabin logs and remain in a longer rotation.
Ultimately, of the 800 acres examines in 2014, the DNR offered 249 acres of planted red pine for sale last June. It sold for $670,000 with the proceeds going to the state School Trust. The agency plans to examine about 800 acres per year for the next three years. Final harvest acres are expected to be similar to 2014–about 250 acres per year. Then it will have a seven- or eight-year gap before more plantations reach the new rotation age.
Not everyone agrees the shorter rotation is a good idea. Dan Wilm, a retired state forester who worked in DNR Forestry in Backus and lives in Pequot Lakes, believes the state should continue managing the plantations on a 100-year rotation. He says working DNR foresters he’s spoken with don’t like it either, but are following orders.
Wilm says that while red pine plantations are often referred to as biological deserts, they take on more characteristics of a natural forest as they are thinned and grow older. He says clear-cutting a plantation at 70 years is short-sighted and intended to provide mills with wood they need now. He has addressed his concerns with legislators and the Governor’s Office.
When he worked on the Pine Island State Forest in northwestern Minnesota some years ago, Wilm says the red pine plantations were more diverse. Loggers could cut aspen and jack pine within the plantation and leave the red pine. While working for the DNR, he managed some plantations through two or three thinnings with final harvest not being part of the plan. The idea of clear-cutting plantations at 70 years, he says, “Hurts like hell.”
Schmid acknowledges Wilm’s concerns, but points out that more often the DNR is criticized for planting red pine plantations because they are monocultures. He says the plantations are “not good for ecology, but pretty good for industrial timber production.” As such, the argument can be made the lands should be managed for the best economic return.
Schmid says Minnesota is not the only state that is moving to shorter rotations for planted red pine. Michigan has adopted a 50- to 80-year harvest strategy. Also, the move is not being done soley to meet the fiduciary demands of the School Trust. The strategy will be adopted for planted red pine on all Minnesota state forests over the next 10 years through the regular planning process. Foresters will continue to have the flexibility for continued thinning where it makes sense. However, an economic return is expected not only from School Trust lands, but also from Con-Con lands in the northwest, where half of the timber sale proceeds are returned to the counties.
What will happen to the plantations after the final harvest? The next crop of trees will be based upon what the land is best suited ecologically to grow. Some will be replanted to red pine. If suitable, others will be allowed to regenerate to aspen or maple/basswood stands.
“Every decision we make is based on native plant communities,” Schmid says. “Harvest prescriptions have a basis in restoration. We view it as an opportunity to make things better.”
In my experience, what Schmid says is true. DNR foresters do work in interdisciplinary teams that include ecologists and fish and wildlife biologists. That said; Wilm brings up an important point. There is a slow shift occurring in the DNR, largely driven by the Legislature, to try and extract every red cent out of Minnesota’s natural resources. The mood of present politicians toward the state’s landscape was largely encapsulated in one legislator’s semi-famous quote about School Trust lands, saying he wanted the state to “log and mine the hell out them.” Add the word “farm” to that quote and you have the legislative marching orders under which the state currently operates.
Fortunately, the state has a sturdy conservation infrastructure that can withstand some pummeling from short-sighted politicians. But the politicians are taking steps in every session to dismantle that infrastructure. Sadly, Minnesota voters seem willing to let them get away with it.