North Shore forest restoration expands tree by tree
John Cloutier had a roll of wire fencing in one hand, a white-pine seedling in the other and a look of bound determination in his eyes.
He had to carry the materials nearly a quarter mile uphill, away from his house near Lake Superior's shore, but he was going to plant and protect the little tree no matter, whitetail deer be damned.
Cloutier is trying to go back to the future on his 36 acres on the hillside above the North Shore, a place where the forest's natural order turned askew more than a century ago and has never quite recovered.
"This is my retirement project," Cloutier said of his and his wife Lynn's effort to reforest the property.
Cloutier has been planting and protecting trees here since 2002, mostly white pine, white spruce and cedar, 100 the first year and 50 every year since then, more than 800 trees in all.
"We're going to keep going as long as we can,'' he said. "Obviously, this is for our grandkids, not us."
Tree-by-tree, acre-by-acre, the same thing is happening all along Minnesota's North Shore — little trees are being planted where in recent decades tall grass and dying birch trees replaced stately pines, cedar and spruce.
It wasn't supposed to be that way
The North Shore problem started in the late 1800s when loggers felled most of the big trees along the shore. Massive fires fueled by slash (limbs and leaves left by loggers) ravaged the landscape that previously had been buffered from catastrophic fires by the cooling impacts of Lake Superior.
Birch and aspen began to grow after the fires, as is often the case as a forest regenerates. But then non-native grasses moved in. Many tree species stopped regenerating, unable to penetrate the thick matt of new sod. Trees that did sprout there were often mowed down by hungry deer, a problem across the North Woods but worse on the North Shore where deer often migrate, in some cases many miles, to spend winters along Lake Superior. Winter deer densities in some areas of the North Shore are among the highest in the state.
By the 1990s, the landscape had been altered beyond the forest's ability to recover naturally. Minnesota's most treasured landscape was becoming a sea of dead birch and grass.
"The forest never got the chance to move on to the next step of succession ... so we have to give it a boost," said Duane Lula, a retired U.S. Forest Service manager who now serves as coordinator of the North Shore Forest Collaborative. "In many places along the shore there isn't even a seed source for white pines to regenerate on their own."
The collaborative has for the past 13 years been leading efforts to plant the forest that will replace the dying birch, mainly between Knife River and the Ontario border, from the shore of the big lake to about three miles inland. That's about 270,000 acres, or more than 400 square miles.
Progress has been slow
While the Superior National Forest and state parks comprise several thousand acres along the shore, some 70 percent of the land in the troubled area is privately owned. It's hard to make a landscape change across thousands of acres working with hundreds of landowners five, 10 or even 40 acres at a time, Lula noted, "but you have to start somewhere."
Last year 38 landowners participated in the collaborative effort that offers not just planning but also planting help. This year that jumped to 96 participants. Landowners purchase their own trees, often from the local Soil and Water Conservation District, and the collaborative covers about 75 percent of the cost of wire fencing to keep out the deer. Fencing costs participants just $25 per roll and comes with anchoring posts and landscaping fabric to keep grass away from little trees.
"If you don't fence, no matter how many trees you plant, you're just feeding the deer," Lula said. The exception is white spruce, which whitetails generally don't eat.
The money this year came from a $45,000 donation by the Weekes Family Trust, a western Wisconsin family that owns property on the North Shore. The 100 participants this spring received 510 50-foot rolls of fencing. For people who want trees on their property but aren't physically able to plant on their own, the collaborative will provide someone to do the work free of charge.
"It really is a great program. I think it's encouraging a lot of people along the shore to do this,'' John Cloutier said.
The six-foot tall fencing rolls can be cut to wrap several trees individually or used to fence off an area of several trees. Fencing can be removed after about eight years, when white pine will be big enough to survive the deer.
Public, private effort
The Superior National Forest, too, is working to bring back pines, spruce and cedar on its land along the shore, about 40,000 acres. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and state park staff also have been planting and fencing white pines for decades across eight state parks on the shore totaling more than 27,000 acres.
Sugarloaf Cove North Shore Stewardship Association has headed the collaborative for years, thanks in large part to a grant from the state of Minnesota's Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Other participants include the Nature Conservancy, county forestry departments and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, Minnesota Forest Resources Council, Grand Portage Band, Minnesota Coastal Program and Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
Just up the shore from Cloutier's property, east of Gooseberry Falls State Park, Randy Bowe and his helper, Chris Belanger, were planting white cedar on Bowe's 380 acres of hunting land. Bowe, an avid deer hunter, has the ironic task of trying to keep deer on his property but away from the 86,000 trees he's planted since he bought his first chunk of land here in 1989.
"I'm trying to get something back here, replace the dead birch and maybe bring it back to where it should have been," Bowe said of his land. "I've made just about every mistake you can make planting trees. But I'm learning what works and what doesn't."
Bowe uses a two-layer fencing system with the traditional welded wire fencing and heavy-duty re-mesh that adds stability. He grabbed as much of the discount fencing as he could through the Collaborative effort, but buys hundreds more rolls at retail price, too.
Bowe said he's got a few more year of planting and then will sit back and hope nature takes over on its own.
"I think I'll shoot for 100,000 (trees planted) and then call it quits," he said with a smile. "Maybe by then it will be looking a little more like it's supposed to around here."
To learn more
North Shore Forest Collaborative restoration workshop
June 9; 1-4:30 p.m.
Speakers and field tour.
Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center near Finland.
For more information on the collaborative go to northshoreforest.org.