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Foresters explain why timber management matters

Forest management can benefit the landscape, but sometimes conflicts with people's ideals.

That is the case at Soaring Eagle Ski Trail, north of Park Rapids, where tree harvesting activity collides with some people's vision of ideal trail conditions and aesthetics.

In April, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Area Forestry Office sold timber on 13 acres of the trail area to a local logger.

The Itascatur Ski, Bike and Run Club, which manages the trail area, asked for two acres to be cleared for parking and a race start area. Club representatives also negotiated for some trees to be left standing as a visual barrier between the highway and the site.

Neil King is among club members who are unhappy with the result, but although he is the club's president, said he is speaking only for himself in expressing dissatisfaction.

According to King, when he and others met with a DNR forester prior to the cutting, he thought the trees would be selectively harvested mostly for jack pine. White spruce and balsam greater than 6 inches in diameter also were to be left standing.

King said in meetings before the harvest, he and others were told the logger was mainly interested in jack pine. "So we thought it would be selective and it was clearcut with only four large Norway pines left standing. It was not done as it was presented," he said.

The contract called for aspen, birch and red oak to be harvested in addition to the jack pine and larger diameter white spruce and balsam. Storms in May and June took the smaller-diameter white spruce and balsam fir and they were cleaned up, explains Mike Lichter, timber sales program forester. "We thought it would be feasible to work around them," said Lichter, "and the logger did a wonderful job, but we got a severe wind in late May and lost some of it." In June, a storm blew down the remaining balsam fir.

Second cut planned

Now timber on another eight acres has been sold near the small pond in the ski trail area. King hopes it won't be clearcut too since it runs down the middle of two trail loops.

From King's point of view, aesthetics should have been taken into account. The ski trail has many uses and users. "It's an asset to the community," he said.

In 2005, more than 2,000 people signed in as visitors at Soaring Eagle. King estimates 35 to 50 percent actually skied there. Others are hikers and hunters who use the two ponds in late fall for duck hunting.

The first sale affects the entrance, the second a section in back. King said there are plans to harvest trees in an area to the west where the club has talked about putting a trail across the larger pond to provide a different experience and to access the large forested piece.

Although the ski club currently manages seven miles of ski trails on 180 acres of DNR forestland, the DNR's trail plan calls for the 180 acres and another 140 adjoining acres to be included as a nonmotorized area.

DNR forestry believes that criteria for a grant-in-aid trail have been met because the surface of the trail has been restored to its original condition. "It's acceptable that the trail has been flattened and reseeded."

But King says that while the surface may be fine, parts that run through unsheltered areas may have to be abandoned because exposure will melt the snow. In addition, he is concerned wind will blow in the newly opened areas and the club will have to groom more often to keep the trails in skiable condition.

"Every time we groom, it's going to blow in," King said. "There's not a consideration for what we're doing out there."

Area already reseeded

Lichter doesn't believe managing the forest on the 180-acre site is at cross-purposes with the ski club's activities.

Rather, he said, the area has already been seeded for jack pine and they will grow back quickly - one foot in the first two years, growing to 10-15 feet in 10 years.

He points to 18-year-old Norway planted when the trail was started after the area's first cross-country ski trail south of Park Rapids. The Potlatch land was logged and DNR helped Itascatur find the new site for its activities.

According to Lichter, the DNR avoided the area for years, but in 2005 an inventory showed jack pine and birch were dying at a rapid rate. The jack pine stand showed a 28 percent reduction since 1990. (The appraisal report shows 200 cords of merchantable jack pine were removed from the 13 acres (valued at $44 a cord); 208 additional cords of jack pine were removed at 40 cents a cord, indicating they were dead).

With the ski club wanting one area cleared for parking and another for race starts, Lichter explained, what was left wasn't diverse enough to leave anything.

The inventory shows the piece to be cut this fall was a birch stand in 1990, but is now mostly aspen because the birch have died of old age. "That area will be selectively harvested," Lichter said.

Lichter said the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association provided a grant for seeding jack pine at the site and for clover seed as well. Forester Steve Bade and others did "a ton of work," seeding trails and cleaning up, he said. They also laid a biocomposite mat on a hill to keep it from eroding.

Ideally, Lichter added, at sensitive sites like those at Soaring Eagle, cutting would be done in winter, but that's not consistent with what the club wants.

'Trust is important'

On future sales, Lichter said he hopes the club can have a better perspective of "what we do. This is not the last piece so trust is important," he said.

As for grooming trails post-harvest, Lichter said it also is the case that there is no snow underneath the tree canopy and opening up the cover will mean there is more snow cover. With dying jack pine removed, club members also won't have to clear out jack pine deadfall, he said.

"Any disturbance is unsightly," Lichter added, "whether it's fire, a windstorm or logging, but without some intervention, the forest won't perpetuate. The longer a stand declines, the greater foothold aspen and brush species get."

When this happens, the result is often a long-term loss of birch stands and more intensive site preparation, including chemical use when replanting jack pine, Lichter said.

Looking at the big picture, he added, jack pine and birch have declined rapidly in this part of Minnesota over the past decade. "About one-third of the birch in our area has disappeared since the 1990 inventory."

When Soaring Eagle was located on DNR land, the DNR chose the site partially based on its proximity to Park Rapids.

The 180 acres is located on school trust land (one section per township). So the DNR also has some obligation to manage the forest best with a return to school districts, explained Area Forester Mark Carlstrom.

The DNR has almost 88,000 acres of land in Hubbard County. King said it just seems unnecessary to pick on the 180-acre site.

King questions if the $11,000 DNR received from sale of the timber on the first 13-acre piece is worth what it cost in terms of aesthetics and the rest. "They didn't make enough money to make it worthwhile."

Last year alone, the club put $4,000 into it and over the years, the club has put $30,000 into the trails. "We do that because the county and state don't do it and because it is a grant-in-aid trail," King said.

"We have talked about summer use for a birding trail if we have some assurance from the DNR that they will work with us."

King points to Cass County where the county maintains a system of four cross-country ski trails.

Cass manages four trails

Land commissioner Norm Moody said it is correct the county manages 34.6 miles of grant-in-aid trails. They are Cut Lake, Hiram, Washburn Lake and Goose Lake. Goose Lake is administered on federal land.

The grants provide reimbursement for some grooming and maintenance. The amount the county spends varies from year to year.

Like Soaring Eagle, Moody said the trails are used for more than cross-country skiing. Cass County's trails are managed for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, grouse hunting and other nonmotorized uses, even geocaching.

The county does harvest timber in the trail areas and stooped trying to leave buffers because they blow over, Moody said.

The county promotes some aspen growth in these areas, Moody added. "It's gorgeous in a ski trail and acts like a snow fence."

"We have to think what's best for the next 50 or 60 years so to those who believe logged areas are unsightly, we do public field trips," Moody added.

With a degree in wildlife biology rather than forestry, Moody said he enjoys showing people how the emerging new vegetation attracts wildlife, more diverse range of bird species and the like.

If people want to know, they can find out five years in advance where we will be cutting, Moody said. "We're glad to work with people. Public forests are there for all users, even though not all uses are compatible."

The feedback Cass County receives is gratifying, he added. "If you put together a good trail system, people will show up." Guest book sheets show visitors from Manitoba to Minnetonka.

Cass County promotes all their trail systems, including those for off-highway vehicles and a "real mix of people" use them, he said.

King said most people involved with Itascatur are business leaders in the community who are concerned with giving local people and visitors to the community healthy recreational alternatives.

Trail a community asset

They see the trail as a community asset. Close to town, Soaring Eagle provides beginner and intermediate trails, compared to the more intimidating trail system in Itasca State Park.

"And there are few places in Minnesota with a warming shelter," King added.

"Outdoor recreation is a key asset to our area both in terms of tourism and quality of life for our residents," said Katie Magozzi, Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce executive director.

She said Itascatur is to be commended for making an investment at Soaring Eagle as a regional asset. "The warming house shows they've done a lot to increase the quality of the experience. Giving people opportunities for outdoor recreation, including physical fitness is "a huge deal nationally and is important for our area."

One example of how significant recreational trails are is the involvement of the city of Detroit Lakes, Becker County and the Lake Country Scenic Byway. All three are working with the DNR to extend the Heartland Trail west of Park Rapids.

"The value of our recreational trails in northern Minnesota is a high priority for the state of Minnesota. They are well used and a nice reflection of the beauty of our area," Magozzi continued.

"Soaring Eagle is an important resource and the DNR is very aware of how important it is, but this went on anyhow," King said.

However, besides "selling tourism," Magozzi said, there is also an interest in interdependency. "People choose to live here and part of selling our area as a place to relocate is our attractions. We need to weigh our assets. They're all important, including valuing and managing our local and regional assets, our forests."