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In Response: Forest management a continual process of harvest, renewal

A Dec. 2 commentary suggested that modern timber harvesting destroys forest habitat and diversity, resulting in less wildlife. This is offered as a counterpoint.

The commentary suggested that there has been widespread change in the species composition and age class of forests in Itasca County in recent decades. To some point, this was right. The forests have changed. But those changes are far different from those the commentary suggested. On a landscape level, our forests are maturing.

The Forest Inventory and Analysis Unit of the U.S. Forest Service compiles forest statistics on all ownerships for much of the U.S. The unit's data show that nearly twice as much total forest area in Itasca County is over 60 years old compared to 40 years ago (40.1 percent vs. 22.8 percent). In that timeframe, the data show a slight decline in the area of aspen forest (37.5 percent vs. 39.6 percent), with nearly the same percentage of total aspen acres being made up of old aspen acreage (11.5 percent vs. 11.8 percent). The data clearly do not indicate significant change in the total aspen forest acreage or aspen age class distribution in Itasca County over the past 40 years.

The apparent large increase of older total forest acreage in Itasca County is not unique to Minnesota. In fact, the trend toward more-mature forests has been well documented across northeastern and north-central states, with resulting populations of many species dependent upon young forests declining. Species such as the wood turtle, ruffed grouse, woodcock, whip-poor-will, indigo bunting, snowshoe hare, golden-winged warbler, and bobcat depend upon young-forest habitats and are being extirpated by forests that are maturing and growing older.

Over this concern for the widespread decline of critical young forest habitat, the Young Forest Initiative was started to help foster support for the active forest management needed to create and maintain younger forests — vital for many game and nongame species. That initiative has many supporters, including the Ruffed Grouse Society, Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, to name a few.

Over time, and across northern Minnesota, DNR lands, along with county and federal forest lands, developed into a vast patchwork of public forests managed to provide a variety of environmental and economic benefits.

At its core, forest management is a continual process of harvest and renewal made possible by a wide range of natural-resources professionals ranging from university researchers to ecologists to wildlife biologists to field foresters and logging professionals.

Management goals and long-term objectives often differ from one forest owner to the next, helping to create diversity at the landscape level. So the Dec. 2 commentary's focus just on the management of Minnesota state lands did not take into consideration the landscape-level complexities of forest and wildlife management.

Not knowing where the column writer hunts, I can't speak to the nature of the forests in his referenced area of Itasca County. It's very likely the forest where he hunts has changed dramatically over the years because of logging activity. It's also likely that grouse and deer hunting is now more challenging in this particular area as a result. But wildlife can and does move as forests grow and habitat slowly changes.

Logging is often used to thin pine and hardwood forests and to regenerate aspen forests. It is a tool that improves the overall health and productivity of forests and is the best way we have to create young forest habitat. All the while, the raw forest products from timber harvests help support thousands of jobs in rural communities, including many in Itasca County.

A wise forester once told me, "You can't store timber on the stump. Similar to storing a tomato on a vine, timber reaches peak ripeness with age and will soon rot. We have the obligation to tend our forest garden sustainably, and the unique ability to reap the rewards and rejuvenate that forest for future generations."

Steve Kariainen of Hayward holds a bachelor's degree in forestry from Michigan Technological University (1973), has worked in forestry for 45 years, and is the current Great Lakes regional director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities (healthyforests.org). He suggests visiting www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/ru/ru_fs154.pdf to learn more about Minnesota Forest Inventory and Analysis data.

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