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DNR says more logging possible in Minnesota

Brad Nelson of Nelson Logging in Hermantown uses a grapple skidder to move logged birch trees into position so they can be sawed. Nelson was logging east of Cotton. (2008 file / News Tribune)

Minnesota's forests can sustain logging 5.5 million cords of wood each year, about double the current harvest level, according to an analysis released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The study, by a University of Minnesota researcher, took a new look at the state's 1994 generic Environmental Impact Statement on tree cutting, an analysis that concluded wood industries could cut 5.5 million cords each year without serious ecological impact.

The idea that cutting 5.5 million cords was sustainable was controversial at the time, with timber industry interests calling it far too low while environmental groups said it would cause widespread loss of habitat for older, bigger trees.

But the current harvest is only about 2.7 million cords per year, the DNR estimates -- down 1 million cords from 2006 and 1.5 million cords from the peak harvest of about 4.2 million cords in the mid-1990s.

"We wanted to refresh the information from 1994, as best we could with the [financial] resources we had, to see if that 5.5 million cord level still made sense ... and the conclusion is that it does," said Keith Jacobson, DNR forest products utilization program leader.

"Then we wanted to let people know that Minnesota does have a wood resource supply that is available out there. There's some slack in the demand side of supply and demand.''

Whether any new or existing industry will take note of the extra wood the DNR says is available isn't clear. Officials say there's little chance the harvest would get to 5.5 million cords anytime soon.

Since logging was a hot-button issue in the 1990s, several Minnesota mills and board plants have closed and demand has dropped as worldwide supply increased faster than demand. The recent global recession also hit hard.

DNR officials are hoping new or expanding mills or possibly wood biomass energy facilities might pick up the slack.

The DNR said both increased forest management, such as tree planting, thinning and selective logging, and improved marketing are necessary.

Tim O'Hara, vice president of forest policy for the Minnesota Timber Producers industry group, said data on wood supply might help spur new investment -- but only after the economy improves.

O'Hara noted that the parent company of the Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids still is considering a huge expansion, as is Sappi, the owners of the Cloquet paper mill.

"This might help someone in Finland or somewhere make the decision where [timber] supply is an issue. But, until the economy gets considerably better, those decisions just aren't being made,'' O'Hara said. Minnesota may have the trees to make lumber and boards, "but we aren't going to see two million new housing starts anytime soon.''

The study, which looked at how much can be cut on all 16.3 million acres of state, county, federal and private forest lands available -- also found that the amount of overall forested land has remained relatively steady since 1994. The average age of trees available for cutting has decreased as more older trees have been cut and more young trees have sprouted or been planted over the past 15 years.