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Blowdowns allow foresters to witness nature's regeneration firsthand

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

BAGLEY, Minn. (AP) -- When you're a forester, it's the long view that counts.

Five years after winds gusting to 130 mph knocked down millions of trees in northern Minnesota, Mark Carlstrom looks at the forest in and around Clearwater County and sees ... forest.

Carlstrom is area forestry supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bagley. He's been one of the leaders in a multi-jurisdictional effort to help the forest recover from winds that left trees in a 35,000-acre area blown down, bent over and snapped off. The blowdown was part of a larger area of devastation of about 250,000 acres stretching across northern Minnesota.

But natural hardwood regeneration, salvage by loggers -- and replanting hundreds of thousands of pine seedlings by state, county, White Earth tribal and private planters -- have produced tracts that already look like woods again.

One blown-down area that's been left alone is a 1,200-acre tract where, Carlstrom says, foresters will study the forest's natural inclinations to regenerate. Carlstrom expects it'll take 30- to 40 years before they learn much of value. In most areas salvaged by loggers, mature hardwood and pines that survived the storm stand tall. Around them are newly planted pine seedlings. In many areas, basswood, maple, aspen, oak and other hardwood species are coming back on their own, sprouting from stumps left by loggers or launching suckers from their roots.

Some blown-over hardwoods left alone and still rooted sport branches that had turned toward the sun.

The standing mature trees, small seedlings and re-sproutings -- in some cases nearly 10 feet tall -- are clear evidence of regeneration.

People thought that salvage would mean no dead woody habitat left for woodpeckers and other birds and mammals.

''They were concerned we'd whack it and stack it and turn it into a plantation,'' Carlstrom said, but they didn't handle it that way. Dead timber stands in many places. In fact, Carlstrom pointed to an increase in populations of pileated woodpeckers, a species that requires standing dead trees.

Carlstrom has the proprietary air of a man who feels some responsibility for forest lands that blew down on his watch and are being rejuvenated partly under his guidance. It's clear he thinks the recovery is coming along nicely, but helping a forest get back on its feet is a complicated business.

Five years is the blink of an eye for a forest, Carlstrom said. He said catastrophic blowdowns such as 1995's are to be expected and have not been unusual in the last 500 years or so.

''We've just not been around long enough to quantify them,'' he said.

Foresters have had their worries about the 1995 blowdown. Experts were concerned that pine bark beetles could devastate surviving pine stands, especially the white and red pine tracts in Itasca State Park that are 200 to 300 years old. But beetle-trapping efforts and a lack of dry weather reduced that risk.

And Carlstrom said there have been only two forest fires of consequence in the blown-down areas since 1995, one last fall of 200 acres and a 38-acre fire a few years ago. Five years after the blowdown, Carlstrom says, the increased fire danger has largely passed.

Last summer's huge blowdown in northeast Minnesota is another matter.

Straight-line winds faster than 90 mph swept across the land last July 4, cutting a swath through 477,000 acres of the Superior National Forest, and also impacting the Chippewa National Forest and Canadian lands north of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The winds caused shore erosion on Cass and Winnibigoshish lakes.

But most of the blowdown was within the Boundary Waters area, where machines are largely forbidden.

Emergency salvage efforts that took loggers to the blowdown areas stopped at the wilderness area. The U.S. Forest Service allowed use of motorized equipment to clean up campsites and portages. A U.S. Forest Service plan for prescribed burning over six years in the BWCA will take care of up to 81,000 acres if approved, but most of the 367,000 blowdown acres within the wilderness area will be left.

That will provide ''an unbroken corridor of fuels,'' according to one forestry report. That means it's not a matter of whether there'll be a fire, experts say, but when and how big.

Alan Ek sees the danger in the Boundary Waters, but appreciates the opportunity it creates. Ek is head of the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota.

He cited experts on the pine bark beetle and on tree diseases who believe the blowdown will lead to a major epidemic of beetles.

''It's just a great big food pile,'' he said. ''The question is, how far will that spread around the region?''

There are health and safety issues, what with more than 6,000 people per day using the BWCA during peak periods, but Ek said it's only in such an undisturbed area that ''we'll be able to watch nature's recovery.''

Ek believes the 1995 and 1999 blowdowns will become a study in contrasts. Recovery from the 1995 storm is typical, with people coming in to clean up the area and minimize disease and fire risk.

The Boundary Waters blowdown will give researchers a chance to see what would have happened centuries ago in forest recovery, he said.

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