Cutting trees and breaking hearts: Logging starts on scenic Highway 34
"The project is ill conceived, unjustified, goes totally against the will of the community and is doing significant damage,” Willis Mattison said in an interview.
DETROIT LAKES — The trees have started falling on the Highway 34 project, and ironically, some of the first trees cut down were in front of the home of Willis Mattison, one of the leading opponents of the tree-cutting project.
“I don’t know where we can stop this, but it can’t stop soon enough,” Mattison told a large conference room full of people at M State on Tuesday.
About 140 people were there for a “Save the Trees Coalition” rally, to consider options for stopping MnDOT’s plans to clear most trees in a wide swath of the right-of-way on both sides of Highway 34 from Four Corners near Detroit Lakes to the outskirts of Osage.
There are two parts to the tree-cutting plan: The first is to clear most trees on both sides of the highway 65 feet back from the centerline. That is the phase that just started.
Such wholesale tree-clearing hasn’t been done on Highway 34 for the past 70 or 80 years, Mattison said.
“The logging we were hoping would not happen started yesterday,” he said. “They started in front of my house at milepost 53 and are working their way towards Detroit Lakes. So if you’re here to save the trees, a few of them have already been lost.”
The second tree-cutting project is deeper selective logging along a seven-mile stretch on the south side of Highway 34, from west of Snellman to the Shell River. That logging is set for next winter.
Mattison, a member of the local Izaak Walton League (the Ikes), is a frequent traveler on Highway 34, and he settled down in a home along the road because of the beauty of the area. Now he’s heartsick to see Norway pine and spruce trees being cut that have stood for decades.
“Every (MnDOT District 4) highway engineer, prior to this one, recognized the value of these trees and left them — and because they didn’t cut them, going back to the 1940s and 1950s, the roadway became a scenic byway,” Mattison said.
Unfortunately, the Lake Country Scenic Byway is an administrative, not legal designation, and since the scenic byway program in Minnesota is run by MnDOT itself, there’s no help there, he added.
At the meeting, members talked about a range of responses, including mass phone calls and emails to state and federal lawmakers, letters to the editor, and contacting statewide media outlets to do news stories.
There was talk of legal action, calling for a face-to-face meeting with Gov. Tim Walz, and even marches and protests.
“It was resolute that the project was ill conceived, unjustified, goes totally against the will of the community and is doing significant damage,” Mattison said in an interview.
The tree removal is an offshoot of a MnDOT resurfacing project set for this year on a 21-mile stretch of Highway 34, from just west of Osage to Becker County Road 29, about 10 miles east of Detroit Lakes.
The resurfacing project itself isn’t controversial. It won’t widen the roadway, just improve what’s already there. That’s why the tree-cutting plan seems excessive and unnecessary to so many locals. The road project could essentially be done without cutting trees at all.
The group would like the tree-cutting to stop until MnDOT can write special vegetation rules for Minnesota’s scenic byways, which would ideally preserve the special characteristics that made them scenic in the first place.
“There really isn’t a well-thought-out vegetation management plan for scenic byways,” said Ikes member Bill Henke. “This has become a grand experiment with our scenic byway. So when you write to lawmakers, push them – how can you do this (to the byway) without a plan?”
In today's dollars, the Lake Country Scenic Byway has an economic impact to the area of about $31 million a year, according to an older study done by the state. The Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway group provided these autumn and winter videos.
The group believes MnDOT failed its environmental responsibilities under federal highway law, and it raised over $20,000 to pay an environmental lawyer. But the legal effort stalled when they learned they had to raise enough for a bond to pay the contractor for any losses if the lawsuit was defeated in court. That upped the potential cost to $200,000 or more, Mattison said. “That was a hill we just couldn’t climb,” unless many more donors can be found, he said.
The total cost of the highway project, originally estimated by MnDOT at $9 million a year ago, was upped to $13 million last September and is now estimated at $15.7 million.
Reliable Tree Service of Cambridge, Minn., is the subcontractor doing the tree removal, according to MnDOT. (Minnesota Diversified Services, LLC, of Park Rapids was incorrectly identified as the subcontractor in the original version of this article. That business has nothing to do with the tree removal on Highway 34)
MnDOT and federal highway officials were invited to the meeting, but declined to attend, as did several elected officials, Mattison said.
But in an interview, Joeb Oyster, project manager for MnDOT’s District 4, said they’ve met with Mattison and others multiple times and listened to their viewpoints.
“We did make revisions based on their concerns and we feel like we've done the best we can to balance everybody's concerns with roadway, safety, budget and environment,” Oyster said.
On the seven-mile stretch, tree-cutting plans have indeed been scaled back.
- Originally MnDOT proposed an 85% removal of shade trees, with 15% of trees remaining out to 250 feet, with a unique logging contract for minimal impact harvest.
- The first revision was a 75% removal of trees, with 25% of trees remaining out to 150 feet.
- The final revision was a 50% removal of trees, with 50% of trees remaining out to 100 feet. Special consideration for red and white pines will be analyzed individually. However, tree cutting could potentially go beyond 100 feet in the future.
Opponents of the project say the overall logging will still be extensive enough to have long lasting negative impacts, to the point where some at the meeting wondered if the roadway would keep its scenic byway designation.
Trees are being removed in part for driver safety, Oyster said, adding that a vehicle left that stretch of roadway and hit a tree, killing a person within the last couple of years.
“We weren’t able to find many instances of cars hitting trees,” Mattison said at the meeting. The highway does not have more crashes than similar two-lane rural highways. Highway 34 does have a higher-than-average rate of crashes per mile per year in the project limits, but there’s no evidence those crashes involve cars hitting trees, as opposed to regular car crashes, he said.
Those at the meeting argued that drivers naturally slow down on a wooded, hilly roadway; the wind and blowing snow can make a roadway icy; deer like to graze in newly-logged areas next to a road, and they predicted Highway 34 will actually become less safe after the trees are gone. MnDOT disagrees with that assessment.
People also fear the Showy lady slipper orchids that now thrive in some areas along the highway will not survive the loss of their shade trees and changing habitat.
MnDOT says the state flower does not have any special protection, and roadsides are not the best place for plants of any sort, but it will do what it can to preserve the flowers.
The project is also aimed at reducing the amount of chloride used on the road during winter months, especially where trees shade the pavement through the Smoky Hills State Forest.
Removing trees from the south side of the road should allow sunlight to hit the pavement, melting snow and ice and reducing chemical use, Oyster said previously.
Mattison, a professional ecologist who retired as regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, calls that a “nice theory.”
He said anecdotes and data from a European study presented by MnDOT don’t hold up.
“I looked at them and there was nothing there,” Mattison said.
Becker County, which opposes the tree-cutting and has a highway department substation in the area, offered to take over ice-removal in that area. That would have solved MnDOT’s original complaint of having to repeatedly send trucks to de-ice that area. But MnDOT declined the offer, unless the county agreed to provide summertime roadside maintenance as well, said newly-elected Becker County Commissioner Erica Jepson, who was at the meeting.
Members of the coalition said they don’t understand why the state is being “stubborn and bullheaded” when the community is not in favor of the tree removal.
“Being responsive to the public in an out-state office is priority number one, and this is so out of character. It’s just puzzling to figure out, how did we get in this predicament?” Mattison wondered.
But he still holds out hope to stop the deeper logging planned for next year through the Smoky Hills, a 7-mile stretch from Snellman to Osage.
As for the logging going on now, time is of the essence, he said, because Highway 34 will lose a few more miles of trees with each passing day as the project wears on.
Oyster said the contractor doing the tree removal must complete the work prior to March 31, so that the road resurfacing part of the project can happen sometime after that.