Balancing safety with scenery on Hwy. 34
This guest commentary is submitted by a Minnesota Department of Transportation district engineer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
I have been with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) for 23 years and have had the good fortune to raise my family here in Detroit Lakes.
During my career, I have been a part of many great area projects. At times, transportation projects require difficult and challenging decisions, but our primary goal is always the same: safer travel for everyone.
I appreciate the opportunity to clarify MnDOT’s decisions on our current project on Hwy. 34. More information and answers to common questions are also available at mndot.gov/d4/projects/hwy34.
The first point of clarification is that the Lake Country Scenic Byway will not and has not been at risk of losing its scenic byway designation at any time during this project.
Next, there are two separate tree-related projects on Hwy. 34:
The work that started on Jan. 23 is the removal of trees within the clear zone. Think of the clear zone as the “recovery zone,” if a vehicle leaves the roadway. We aim to keep that area along our roadsides free of obstructions, so if a vehicle does go into the ditch, they can safely recover or stop. It is a proactive approach to improving highway safety that MnDOT uses statewide.
In the past five years, there have been 412 serious injuries and 133 fatalities in Minnesota due to vehicles leaving the roadway and impacting trees.
On Hwy. 34, the clear zone is roughly 65 feet from centerline on each side of the highway. In several areas along Hwy. 34, the trees already fall behind that line. In other areas, 5 to 10 feet of trees will be removed.
Some have suggested these removals could create wind tunnels – but MnDOT has an entire team of folks who study blowing and drifting snow and have consulted closely with us on this project to ensure that will not happen.
The second tree-related project will not begin until the winter 2024 and focuses on reducing shading on the roadway.
Shade reduction is a tool used across the U.S. in areas where shade from trees can create more challenging winter driving conditions. Reducing the shading from nearby trees allows the sun to reach the pavement, raising its temperature. This is particularly helpful for winter maintenance efforts.
Anyone who has traveled along Hwy. 34 in the winter knows that the road can be icy in these shaded areas.
Due to the pavement rarely seeing sunlight, snow and ice easily get compacted on the road, making it hard to remove. Studies show that at 15 degrees, one pound of salt melts about 6.3 pounds of ice. At 30 degrees, that same pound of salt can melt 46.3 pounds of ice.
We know there is about a 13- to 15-degree difference in pavement temperature between the sunny and shaded areas on Hwy.34.
Reducing shading on the highway with selective logging not only helps us improve safety and minimizes snow and ice build-up, but also helps reduce salt usage – something MnDOT is always trying to do to protect our environment and the health of wildlife and our beautiful lakes and rivers.
The shade reduction work will only take place on the south side of Hwy. 34 between Snellman and Osage within 100 feet of the pavement. This is not “clear cutting” or “stripping the roadway of trees” in the area of the Smoky Hills. Rather, it would be a process of selective logging to strategically and thoughtfully remove only the unhealthy trees and trees that produce the greatest shading on the road.
Our plans include special consideration of preserving red pines, white pines and lady slippers. Furthermore, at least 50% of existing trees will remain. MnDOT will plant additional new trees further back from the road to encourage new growth and support the forest’s biodiversity, and this limited removal of trees is not anticipated to increase deer hits along Hwy. 34 either.
MnDOT must consider both human safety and environmental impacts on all projects, a task we take very seriously. We have listened closely to public concerns about the tree removals.
We first announced the plans for this work in 2020 with a letter to adjacent landowners to inform them of the project plans. When we began hearing concerns, we paused our plans to gather more input.
Since then, we have met numerous times with our agency partners in Becker County, leaders from White Earth Nation, and stakeholder groups (Izaak Walton League, Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway, Save the Trees Coalition, Honor the Earth).
MnDOT held two public meetings, one virtually and one in-person, and we have also gathered dozens of comments by phone, email and online form submissions.
Considering this input, we made significant changes to the project’s scope of work. Most notable of the changes is the amount of tree removals: originally, the removal was planned for up to 250 feet from the centerline of the road with 85% of trees being removed.
Based on the thoughtful comments and feedback from the community and in consultation with our many partners, we have been able to scale back that number and keep significantly more trees without losing the safety benefits.
Throughout this process, MnDOT has followed all federal and state environmental laws, consulted with our environmental experts/partners and gathered feedback throughout the project development process.
We will also be conducting a study with the University of Minnesota to gather additional data on sunlight and pavement temperature, and to help ensure that we are only removing trees that are necessary to improve safety.
As fellow residents of northwestern Minnesota, we care deeply about preserving our beautiful northern landscape. We are confident that this project will improve highway safety while still maintaining the natural scenic beauty of the corridor for years to come.