Northern Minnesota

Justin Hynicka, Manager of Forest Conservation

The group leaving the black ash research site
The group leaving the black ash research site. Credit: Justin Hynicka.

WORKING AT AMERICAN FORESTS, I did not expect to find myself here: It is dark, loud, and although it smells like pine, the scent is stronger than I have ever experienced before. My expectations are not because I am anti-forest industry or anything like that, but as a nonprofit organization in the tree planting business, we rarely talk about cutting trees down.

Yet, here I am touring the Potlatch Sawmill near Bemidji, Minn., watching a staggering 28 red pine trees turn into 2×4 lumber every minute. And, I am not alone. I have five IKEA iWitness
Ambassadors with me to see and experience American Forests’ work first-hand. This particular stop may sound like fundraising suicide, but the sawmill is one in a series of stops with a greater purpose: to provide a holistic experience of forests from tree planting to maturity and the challenges they face along the way.

First and foremost, our group is in northern Minnesota at the Chippewa National Forest to help plant trees. We arrive at the planting site in late morning to meet Gary Swanson, the Forest Silviculturist at the Chippewa National Forest, where he explains that the site we are helping to restore was damaged by an intense storm in 2012, which snapped and uprooted mature conifer trees across 95,000 acres. Surveying the site as he speaks, we have to use our imaginations to picture what it must have looked like following the storm. There is no evidence of tree-carnage despite the destruction that occurred here because the most difficult work — removing the fallen trees — has already been completed. Except for a few remaining logs, the site is nearly barren — ideal conditions for white spruce seedlings — beckoning us to give it new life.

If you have not been to this region, northern Minnesota excels at two things: producing water and growing trees. With all that water, wildfires are rare and damage to forests is caused primarily by wind. It’s also bitterly cold in the winter, which helps keep damaging insects at bay. Stately spruce and pines dominate this forest if left untouched. However, faster-growing oaks and aspen proliferate when the canopy is opened until they succumb to old age or are overtaken by slower-growing confers in a centuries long race of hare and tortoise.

By planting white spruce seedlings where white spruce trees previously stood, we are deciding this race early. Gary Swanson’s job can best be described as a forest architect. He and other silviculturists around the country are experts in forest ecology, and they use their expertise to set goals, evaluate the forest and, if necessary, design and alter a forest to meet them. The goal at our tree planting site is to accelerate the natural process of forest succession and return it to a mature conifer forest more quickly. While oaks are excluded here, they are promoted in other parts of the forest, which has a massive tree planting program exceeding 1.5 million seedlings of a dozen different tree species each year. Most people are not aware that design permeates throughout our public lands, and there are few that can read and interpret this design in the forest.

The difference between a good and a great silviculturist (forest architect) is the ability to anticipate change and learn from other forest health experts to make informed decisions. If you live in the eastern United States, you have likely heard of the emerald ash borer. This small green insect was introduced to North American from Asia in 2002, and kills all species of native ash trees commonly found along streams and other moist areas. The larva feed on live cells beneath tree bark, starving the tree of water and nutrients it needs to make energy, and later emerge as winged adults from D-shaped holes in search of a new tree-host. These new agents of change are now on the doorstep of the Chippewa National Forest, whose many forested swamps are dominated by black ash. In anticipation of the emerald ash borer and the widespread loss of black ash from the Forest, Gary devised an experiment with Brian Palik at the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station to understand the impacts of losing this tree — putting him in great silviculturist territory.

We head north from the tree planting site to meet Brian where the experiment is taking place. Donning knee-high boots, our group enters the swamp, carefully stepping on clumps of grass and sedge so we don’t sink into the amber water. Brian explains to us that the purpose of the experiment is to mimic the emerald ash borer only on a much smaller scale. Small groups of black ash trees in the swamp are girdled, (i.e., killed by completely removing a portion of the bark around the tree) and changes in the environment have been monitored over several years. Other tree species that tolerate the wet conditions can be found in the swamp, but black ash are the most common by far and thrive here. With the loss of ash, Brian found that water levels in the swamp rose to a point that other tree species may no longer tolerate the wet conditions, suggesting that forested swamps in the Chippewa National Forest will likely transition to non-forested swamps in the future with the widespread loss of ash.

In addition to serving an important ecological function, black ash are also important culturally. The Leech Lake Indian Reservation is within the forest boundary, and the Anishinabe people have used black ash wood for thousands of years to make woven baskets. Felled trees are laboriously pounded to make annual growth rings separate like layers of an onion, which are then cut into thin strips for weaving. There are no other native trees in the region that can be processed in this manner, but Japanese mountain ash (a closely related tree species) may help keep this tradition alive.

The Chippewa National Forest has experienced this type of loss before, but our last stop offered hope that pieces of the forest can be put back together. Once widespread throughout the eastern United States, American elm trees have been decimated across their entire range by a non-native fungus introduced in Ohio during the 1930s. Mature surviving trees likely have natural resistance to the disease, and seedlings grown from survivors in Minnesota, Delaware and Ohio have been planted in the forest as part of a disease resistance experiment.

At a fenced-in field with orderly rows of American elm trees, Gary shows us a colorful map indicating which tree is been planted where. There are noticeable gaps among the trees, places where southern elms should be but could not tolerate the bitter Minnesota winter. Most are 12 to 15 feet tall and growing well except for one type affectionately labeled FUBAR, which are all growing at a strange angle. The trees will be exposed to Dutch elm disease in the coming months, and based on their response may well produce the next generation of American elm seedlings returned to the landscape.