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MnDOT slightly alters Hwy. 34 tree-cutting plan, but locals aren’t satisfied

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) still plans to cut all the trees in a 65-foot “clear zone” on both sides of Highway 34 as part of its upcoming project, but after public criticism, it now plans to cut just 50% of the “shade trees” beyond that zone on the south side of a seven-mile scenic stretch in the Smoky Hills near Osage.

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State Hwy. 34 is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway.
Detroit Lakes Tribune file photo

DETROIT LAKES — The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) still plans to cut all the trees in a 65-foot “clear zone” on both sides of Highway 34 as part of its upcoming project, but after public criticism, it now plans to cut just 50% of the “shade trees” beyond that zone on the south side of a seven-mile scenic stretch in the Smoky Hills near Osage.

MnDOT originally planned to cut 85% of those extra trees to reduce shading that it says makes the highway icy in the wintertime. And it originally planned to thin those trees 250 feet back from the highway in that seven-mile stretch from Snellman to the Shell River outside of Osage. MnDOT owns a lot of right of way in that area, and can cut trees back a long way.

After sharp negative public reaction to those plans, it decided to thin 75% of the trees 150 feet back from the highway. With many members of the motoring public, and groups like the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce Tourism Bureau, Becker County, and the local Izaak Walton League still opposed to the large-scale tree-cutting along a scenic byway, MnDOT has changed its plans again.

It now says it will still cut all the trees in the 65-foot “clear zone” on both sides of the highway, but will take 50% of all trees in the “shade zone,” which extends from the 65-foot clear zone out 150 feet from the highway.

MnDOT project leaders announced the latest change of plans at the April 5 Becker County Board meeting, where they appeared along with Temporary MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger.

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“I appreciate the (MnDOT) district taking the time to dig into this,” Daubenberger said. “It is very much a targeted approach to taking trees, and safety is our top priority. However, it is a scenic area.”

MnDOT project manager Joeb Oyster told Becker County commissioners that there are areas along Highway 34 that have a lot fewer trees than the project area, so after the trees are removed “it will match very well with the rest of the scenic corridor.”

By removing the shade trees, MnDOT says it will be able to use less of its salty brine solution on icy stretches of the road, which would be better for the environment. It would also be less cumbersome for MnDOT, which sometimes has to send salt trucks out more than once to keep treating the same icy spots.

That line of thinking didn’t sit well with several commissioners.

“I love the stretch of road that you guys are going to take all the trees out of,” said Commissioner Richard Vareberg. If MnDOT would go back to using more sand on icy highways, like it used to, a lot of the problems on Highway 34 would be solved, he added.

“I’ve driven that road a lot over the years, and I’ve never had an issue with it,” said Commissioner Larry Knutson, who lives in the Toad Lake area. “The biggest concern I have is that we have many thick, thick pine trees — just past the 65-foot (total clearance) zone. That’s where the scenery comes in — losing them wouldn’t be acceptable to me.”

Commissioner Ben Grimsley asked if MnDOT planned to cut trees along all highways in the area, such as scenic Highway 113 along the northern edge of the county, like it plans to do along Highway 34. He was told no, not at this time. He asked why it had to happen on Highway 34, and was told because of the roadway’s issues and characteristics.

The Becker County Board earlier wrote a letter opposing the large-scale cutting of trees along Highway 34, which is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway.

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The latest MnDOT proposal, and Daubenberger’s appearance before the County Board, appeared to be a response to that letter.

Commissioner Barry Nelson thanked Daubenberger for getting involved in the issue and coming to the County Board meeting.

“When you go through this stretch, you accept the fact you need to slow down through there,” he said. “It is a balance — there’s no perfect solution.”

He added that, “I really do appreciate the compromise, but I’m not sure any locals are going to accept it.”

The $8.9 million construction project involves a 21-mile, full-depth reclamation and repaving project from the Four Corners (Highway 29) intersection to the old Highway 225 (now County Road 47) intersection near Osage. Construction work will be done in 2023, but tree-cutting will start this fall.

RELATED COVERAGE:
The Minnesota Department of Transportation hired a contractor to remove trees along Highway 34 as part of a road resurfacing project. The logging began Monday, Jan. 23.

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