Agencies, landowners partner to improve forest health
Walking through the thinned stands of trees and seeing the darkened ground left behind by burn piles, one might be tempted to think the property owner is clearing the land completely of trees.
A closer look, however, reveals metal cages protecting seedling trees from deer browse and what is actually happening is something much, much more ambitious.
Jamie Juenemann, the land owner, isn't trying to clear the land at all. Instead he is trying to restore the forest on his 80 acre property just outside Two Harbors to a time before the area was heavily settled and white pine dominated the landscape. Juenemann is working with the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) to remove as much of the balsam fir on the land as possible and re-seeding it with white pine, yellow birch, red oak and a diverse array of hardy trees to help the forest begin the process of regenerating itself naturally.
Much of the balsam fir in Lake County and parts of St. Louis County is under attack from the spruce budworm, a native pest in the fifth year of an outbreak forecast to last until 2022. SWCD forester Tim Byrns said while spruce trees are threatened by the pest, 70 to 100 percent of the balsam firs in Lake County could be dead by the end of the outbreak.
"What it does is that it defoliates and kills vast acreage of balsam fir, despite the name spruce budworm, balsam fir are most susceptible to damage while spruces are only minimally susceptible," Byrns said.
All the dead balsam on the property and around Lake County increases the risk of fire around the county. With that many dead trees no longer holding soil in place on the banks of local streams and rivers, there is also an increased risk of flooding and sediment flowing into Lake Superior.
Jeunemann said he first started thinking about trying to reduce the number of balsam firs on his property, which he grew up on, when he first moved back in the mid 1990s. Juenemann said he and his wife hadn't been living on the property long when some Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fire trucks responded to a fire just across their property line.
Since then, as a project analyst for fisheries for the DNR, Juenemann has spent a lot of time looking over the original surveys of the land in and around Lake County from before the area was settled, beginning in the 1850s.
Juenemann discovered the landscape of Lake County forests was once dominated by white pine and other larger, hardier species. He also sees the evidence of the larger species trees walking through his property. When storms blew through a century or more ago and uprooted the larger pines, the trees left crescent shaped depressions in the ground where the root ball had been ripped up. The depressions dot the landscape and provide a glimpse of what was once common.
"There were white pines that used to be on this property 28 inches in diameter," Juenemann said.
The dominance of balsam in some parts of Lake County forests and the intensity of the spruce budworm outbreak is a result of a number of factors including logging practices in the early part of the 20th Century and, ironically, fire suppression.
"The balsam is late successional forest," Byrns said. "Let's say you did have a forest fire. Ideally that forest fire wouldn't take out these big pines. Those larger trees that survive fires serve as seed trees. What we did, as humans, we took those seed trees off. So we have these shorter times of forest succession."
Balsam firs reach maturity much more quickly than other larger species, anywhere from 25 to 40 years. As the settlement of Lake County has increased, so has the suppression of naturally occurring wildfire and more of the balsam trees reach maturity, leading to spruce budworm outbreaks like the one currently afflicting Lake County.
"Now we don't have those seed trees and no fire," Byrns said. "So those balsam forests will choke out a lot of other tree species in the understory. If they are left, even when they are dead, in the landscape it stagnates and halts the next phase in forest health."
BWSR is providing $114,000 in a Clean Water Fund pilot project and working with the SWCD, the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa and landowners to clear properties of balsam understory and regenerate the forest. Landowners are responsible for 25 percent of the cost of the work and in some cases there are programs providing free trees and fencing or cages to prevent deer from killing the seedlings. Byrns has also been making landowners aware of the program and other cost sharing grants through the Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Not all participants are attempting to artificially regenerate the forest like Juenemann. Some are simply clearing the land of balsam and seeing what species spring up in the cleared land and while others are even trying to treat the spruce budworm with a natural pesticide.
One thing is clear, though, they are all trying to create a healthier, more diverse forest in Lake County.