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DNR protects old-growth trees
FOREST PLAN:In an effort to protect old-growth forests, the Minnesota agency bars logging on 40,000 acres of state land.
John Myers
Duluth News Tribune

Nearly 40,000 acres of state-owned forest land will be set aside as old-growth forest under a plan developed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The old growth includes some of the state's most majestic, oldest and biggest trees, which will be off-limits to logging.

The total acreage protected amounts to less than 1 percent of all state-managed lands and an even smaller percentage, less than 0.3 percent, of the 15 million forested acres in the state.

About 50 percent of the state's forest was old growth before farmers and loggers began clearing it in the 1800s.

Yet, while the plan protects only a fraction of the state's old trees, it marks the first official protection for many of the more than 750 stands of old timber on state land. These are trees either missed or bypassed by loggers over the past century -- some of the last virgin timber left in the state.

"We inventoried all the potential old growth on state land, and these are the ones that scored the highest," said Keith Wendt, a DNR planner who headed the Old-Growth Forest Committee. "These are the last, best old trees on state land."

Old growth -- trees 120 years and older -- is considered important for forest diversity, including wildlife habitat and aesthetics. Old trees also can be keys to regeneration, with hardy trees having the best genetic traits to survive and reproduce.

Very old trees also provide unique habitat for other types of organisms, from owls and bears to mosses, lichens and fungi. They are important not just for their size, but for the shade they cast and their rotting logs on the forest floor.

"These are the oldest and least disturbed ecological communities in their areas," said Kurt Rusterholz of the DNR's Ecological Services Division. "Some species, quite a few really, require very old forest cover or they can't survive."

But protecting old-growth trees has become a national, even global, hot-button issue. The same trees that many people want to preserve also are the best trees for the lumber industry. That battle has caused confrontation in Minnesota and across the nation, both in courts and in the forests.

Of the nearly 40,000 acres protected, about 22,000 acres are on land where the old trees were in danger of being cut, such as state forests. The rest are in state parks and scientific and natural areas and likely would never have been logged.

The DNR's draft plan was released Friday and will be available on a Web site for public viewing next month.

"The protections are essentially in place. No further action is needed" by the Legislature or DNR commissioner, Wendt said.

Each old-growth stand has been identified in a computer database that will alert foresters which lands are off-limits for logging.

The acres protected were determined by the DNR's Old Growth Forest Committee, which has been working for eight years, first to figure how much old growth existed in Minnesota and then to decide how much should be protected. The committee included staff from the planning, forestry, wildlife and ecological services divisions.

The trees considered for old growth included red and white pines, cedar, oak, spruce, fir, maple, basswood and some additional northern hardwood species. Other species -- such as jack pine, aspen and birch, which rarely reach 120 years -- weren't considered for old-growth protections

The agency found about 70,000 acres of old-growth trees on state land that are 120 years old or older. But many of those trees were in very small clusters and weren't included in the final plan.

Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers, said his group supports the new old-growth protection plan. But he said the long delay in forming a plan, nearly eight years, may have kept some saw timber off the market.

That may have helped squeeze the amount of available timber as sawmills face increasingly tough economic times. And Brandt hopes that timber now is released to be cut.

"We agree with the concept of protecting trees that truly meet the definition of biological old growth, not just an old tree," Brandt said. "We're hoping now that we have a plan that some of the area (forestry) managers will release some of that red pine... that isn't included in the old-growth status."

The DNR's Rusterholz, a member of the Old Growth Committee, said the total acres protected probably isn't enough to protect all species in all areas.

"When you go from half the forest being old to just a percentage or two, we just don't know what level is necessary for viability," he said. "But I still think this is one of the major DNR accomplishments as far as forest sustainability. It was a major undertaking."

Of the 40,000 acres in the plan, about 30,000 already meet old-growth requirements, with about 10,000 acres listed as "potential old growth," not quite of age. Both will receive the same protection.

The 40,000 acres falls short of the combined 56,000 acres old growth/potential old growth recommended in 1994 reports, "but is about what we could do considering the controversial nature of old growth," Wendt said.

Other landowners also are forming old growth plans, including the U.S. Forest Service and county land departments. It's not clear how much old growth the state's two national forests will set aside outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Superior and Chippewa national forests will decide old-growth protections as part of long-range forest plans that will be released in February.

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