Whose woods these are
By Stephanie Hemphill Minnesota Public Radio
The Sierra Club is suing the U.S. Forest Service. The
group wants the U.S. District Court in western Michigan
to block aspen logging on the national forests in Michigan,
Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The Sierra Club says the Forest
Service allows too much clearcutting of aspen, holding
back re-growth of native pine and hardwood forests.
The lawsuit is a sign of the times - American forests
are in transition.
IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS
The vast pineries and hardwood stands of northern Michigan,
Wisconsin, and Minnesota were cut down in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Loggers cut the big trees to
build the burgeoning cities of the Midwest.
When the trees were gone, wildfires swept through the
slash. After the fires, aspen grew up thick and fast.
Aspen, or "popple," as many Minnesotans call
it, is a tree that thrives in disturbed landscapes. In
scientific terms, it's a pioneer species.
If nature were allowed to take its course, other species
would grow up beneath the aspen. Pines and spruce, maples
and oaks would eventually dominate the forest again.
But in the 1970s and 1980s, industry found uses for the
ubiquitous aspen. Paper mills were built in communities
across northeastern Minnesota, and "engineered wood"
mills became an important part of the region's economy.
They glue together tiny bits of wood to make sheets like
Every day, loggers cut down vast swaths of young aspen
to feed the mills. And more young aspen grows up in its
place. Today, aspen and birch make up 80 percent of northeastern
Minnesota's forests. Before logging, the woods were about
10 percent aspen.
The Sierra Club says the U.S. Forest Service is bowing
to pressure from the paper companies and chipboard mills.
The group says the government is managing its forests
to keep the aspen coming.
If the Forest Service would allow more of the aspen to
die off and give way to pines and hardwoods, the Sierra
Club says, it would boost the population of wolves and
mountain lions, among other threatened species. These
animals, which are endangered or nonexistent in most of
their original range, can only thrive in large expanses
of older forests.
But other animals have been doing well in the young aspen
forest. Ruffed grouse and deer are popular with hunters,
and they thrive in young aspen woods.
Marvin Roberson, a forest policy specialist with the
Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, says there's no danger
they will become extinct.
"There may be some concern on some people's parts
that the levels may be lower than they would like for
hunting purposes," Roberson says. "But the species
are not in trouble for survival."
There are lots of grouse and deer now. But some hunters
worry about the future. Rick Horton, a wildlife biologist
for the Minnesota chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society,
says if the Forest Service allows too much of the woods
to get old, it could hurt animals that need young forest
"We want to ensure that we have a good balance of
both young and old forests of different types, to provide
for maximum biodiversity," says Horton. "What
some people seem to forget is that young forests are an
important component of biodiversity - very important for
a whole host of wildlife species."
The Sierra Club says it's not only animals that are at
stake, but jobs for people. Marvin Roberson says older
forests would provide more jobs than the young aspen stands
"The number of jobs produced by aspen cutting that
goes to pulp and paper is very small, when you consider
the huge amount of land and wood that goes into these
things," Roberson says. "They're highly automated
industries. They don't employ nearly the number of people
- per cord of wood or per dollar invested - that later-stage
hardwoods and sawlog value-added industries do."
Sawlogs are turned into lumber for home-building, cabinets,
In Minnesota, about 22,000 people work in the lumber
industry. About the same number work for firms making
paper products. Only about 6,000 people work at paper
mills and chipboard plants.
But the mills devour many more trees than the lumber
industry does. About three-quarters of the wood cut in
Minnesota goes to pulp mills and board plants.
Wayne Brandt, a spokesman for the trade organization,
Minnesota Forest Industries, says although mills employ
relatively small numbers of workers, they're good jobs.
"Paper mills have been very stable employers even
in very very difficult times," says Brandt. "They
provide very high wages, much higher than many of the
alternatives that people have in the forested regions.
They're important jobs to the economy."
The mills expect to run into a shortage of mature aspen
in the next 10 to 20 years. Some mills are investing in
equipment to allow them to use other trees. Brandt says
chipboard plants can use nearly one third non-aspens,
and some of the paper mills can also use alternative woods.
"The Minnesota industry has grown up to utilize
the resource that's here as it's grown," Brandt says.
"We've never expected that anybody, the agencies
or anybody, had to try and grow us a certain type of tree."
The industry will continue to adapt as the forest changes.
A few loggers are adapting by down-sizing and specializing.
Entrepreneur Joe Jewett runs Copperhead Road Logging and
Lumber. It's a one-man operation, and he likes it that
way. He used to work for his parents, harvesting aspen
for pulp. Now he specializes in cutting hardwoods for
value-added products like paneling and venetian blinds.
That way he can cut fewer trees for a similar return.
At his harvest site in Aitkin County, Jewett says there's
room in the woods for aspen, basswood, and everything
"Some sites are aspen sites, like right over there
where the aspen was harvested out and is now regenerating,"
he says, gesturing down the logging track to a stand of
10-year-old aspen. "There's hardwood sites and aspen
sites, so there always will be aspen to harvest."
Jewett says the small sawlog industry can co-exist with
the giant mills. If nature is allowed to take its course,
operations like Jewett's could represent an increasingly
important part of the economy in the Northwoods.
More from MPR Creating a market for "character wood"
Forest industry looks to Finland
More Information Sierra Club U.S. Forest Service Minnesota