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Growing gold in Cass County.

Every fall, Cass County in northern Minnesota turns gold, but in one sense the county is golden year-round. Approximately half of the county's forests are aspen, and that former "weed tree" has helped finance innovative management of the county's public land.

Cass County's land commissioner is Bill Brown, who is responsible for 254,000 acres of public land. A forester by trade, Brown has adopted progressive management practices that could serve as a model for other counties nationwide.

Under Brown's leadership, Cass County was the first of the 13 Minnesota counties with land departments to adopt the Geographic Information System (GIS), a sophisticated mapping system in use at the national and state levels since the late 1970s. Adopting GIS at the local level puts Cass County on the cutting edge of high-tech forest planning. Perhaps more important, Bill Brown has also put Cass in the forefront as a model of how a county can cut its timber while sustaining reasonable forest growth and protecting aesthetics and wildlife habitat.

Brown describes Cass County as "wild and woolly," a land of native forests, lakes (4,000 over 10 acres in size), marshes, bogs, and a widely dispersed population of rugged, hard-working people. The land and its trees provide the base for the county's major industries: forest products, recreation, and tourism.

Of the county's 1.3 million acres, 60 percent is public land. Approximately one-third of that is the Chippewa National Forest administered by the U.S. Forest Service, another one-third is county-managed land, and the rest is held by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Much of the land under Brown's jurisdiction is in large forested blocks ranging from 1,000 to 20,000 acres. It is tax-forfeited land that technically belongs to the state but is administered by the county. Minnesota is the only state in the nation to put tax-forfeited land into the hands of counties to manage for timber and wildlife.

As head of the Cass County Land Department, Brown oversees a staff consisting of three area foresters, a wildlife biologist, a field supervisor, trails foreman, and a timber-stand-improvement crew. The land commissioner is responsible to the county board of commissioners, the elected governing body.

Brown's management techniques place equal emphasis on all aspects of the forest from timber to wildlife, water, and soils. He calls his techniques "sensitive management" because they are designed and implemented with aesthetics and naturalness as the primary considerations. This kind of management helps answer public demands for nontimber resources and is what Brown describes as a total multiple-use concept.

He emphasizes, however, that without industry, he cannot accommodate his wildlife and other management goals. "I cannot create some of the scenic and wildlife opportunities without the ability to remove trees and maintain a healthy, vigorous forest," he says. "It all goes together."

The Cass County Land Department covers all of its own costs-mainly through timber sales-and returns excess revenues to local units of government in the county. Sales of aspen set records in 1989, topping $500,000. Over the past 15 years, the average annual harvest has been 30,000 cords, but in 1989 the harvest was 62,970 cords. Regrowth is still outpacing cutting.

The stability of the county's economy depends on diversity. Income produced by multiple uses of public lands is income that is spread over time and maintains economic health in a sustainable way.

Approximately half of the county's economy is based on tourism and recreation. The large parcels of county forestland lend themselves to activities like snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and all-terrain vehicles, which require sizable land bases.

The value of the county's forestland as a recreational attraction is difficult to put a price tag on. Who can put a dollar value on a walk in the woods, seeing autumn leaves, smelling the aroma of the damp forest floor, or hearing timber wolves howl in the moonlight-a wild, weird, but beautiful, spine-tingling chorus indeed.

In a day and age when the public clamors for wildlife protection, Cass is unique in being the only county land department in Minnesota with a wildlife biologist on staff. Larry Olson was hired 16 years ago by Brown's predecessor. Olson considers himself more of a resource manager than a biologist. He is involved in everything from designing trails to setting up timber sales.

"Bill hires foresters who are interested in wildlife," says Olson, and I'm a wildlife biologist who is also interested in the forestry part of it."

With Olson's assistance, special protection for rare and endangered species, scenic areas, or unique flowers and plants is incorporated into all timber sales. Primary emphasis is on habitat management for species ranging from ruffed grouse, whitetail deer, and woodcock to prairie chickens and rare Connecticut warblers. Techniques of sensitive management are applied to native wild orchids, such as the rare ram's-head lady's slippers found growing at the edge of a 10-square-mile bog. One of Olson's boldest and yet most sensitive moves was converting 128 acres of Norway pine plantation to prairie. Native prairie in Minnesota was once the home of the prairie chicken, which had become nearly extinct in this part of its range.

The area in question had gone back to prairie after it burned during a 1976 fire that ravaged thousands of acres of northern Minnesota. The area grew back to what it was historically-a native prairie of waving grasses, purple blazing stars, yellow sunflowers, and light blue spring pasqueflowers. It wasn't long before prairie chickens were "booming" in ritualistic mating dances.

But the rich prairie soil was also perfect for growing trees, so foresters turned it into a beautiful Norway pine plantation.

"It took a lot of courage because of the potential conflict, but we went in with a hydro-ax and eliminated the trees so we can maintain that area as a permanent prairie and habitat for prairie chickens," Brown says. "That prairie-and-marsh area is unique. It has a whole different appeal and is part of Cass County's diversity. "

He adds, "It cost 120 an acre to plant it to Norways and $60 an acre to unplant it. If it hadn't been planted to trees in the first place, $180 an acre would have been saved."

Brown hopes that the move will help environmentalists recognize that his department is furthering their interests and perhaps better understand the rest of his job. "We're still going to harvest and plant trees," he says, "but if we don't demonstrate some sensitivity, we're always going to be subject to criticism."

The wealth of data on wildlife management, sensitive areas, and the forest inventory in Cass County are kept track of with the help of the Geographic Information System (GIS). The relatively new computer-generated mapping system allows land managers to use their inventory data efficiently.

Prior to the advent of GIS, the county's forest-inventory map and its computer data base were independent. Every year or two the map became obsolete, and updating it was a laborious job. By the time new information was entered, it was already out of date. Keeping the map current, penciling in timber cuts, was as slow as pouring frozen molasses on cornbread. By the time you get the molasses out of the jar, you're no longer hungry.

Now, instead of drawing the map by hand, personnel enter coordinates into a computer using a digitized pad, a gadget that resembles an electronic drawing board. The pad accepts electronic signals and transfers them to the computer in numerical form, thus the buzzword digitized.

The information is based on aerial photographs taken with infrared film. This process of remote sensing allows the determination of physical features from a distance. The digitized "bits" are representations of botanical features such as timber stands, tree species, and timber age; geographic land forms such as slopes and rock outcrops; and other features such as roads, cutover land, wildlife habitats, and water. After field verification, the information is fed into the computer, which then generates base maps.

Brown had seen the GIS system demonstrated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). To modify the system for application to Cass County, he urged two entrepreneurs in Walker, the county seat, to form a private consulting company. The two men, Greg Proper and Lee Westfield, founded Pro-West and Associates.

Relates Westfield, "Bill recognized the value of GIS and wanted someone who could set it up in a relatively short time. "

Westfield is a forester who designed a remote-sensing program while working for the MDNR. Proper's expertise came from his former position as an assistant highway engineer for the county. He had left the government and formed his own firm that designed highways on microcomputers.

One of the main functions of the GIS is planning. Using the computer-generated maps, a five-year cutting plan was devised for the county's tax-forfeited lands. The plan is constantly updated. "When we go ahead one year," explains Westfield, "the plan moves up one year. " As each year of harvest ends, another year is added to maintain a five-year plan.

The GIS shows what's been done site by site. It indicates where future cuts will be made. The timber industry knows what the cuts will yield and what stands are going to be offered for sale to private loggers.

"Since Cass County started with GIS," says Proper, "six or seven other counties with land departments are doing it. "

In addition to providing valuable information on existing conditions in county forests, the base maps offer an exciting technology for tourism interests. Potential recreation trails can be identified and mapped, fall-color tours established, and sensitive areas defined. Working with county land managers, tourist bureaus can generate a wide range of marketing pieces designed for special-interest groups such as birdwatching clubs and mushroom enthusiasts. Brochures and videos can be developed to illustrate the best sites for seeing wildlife.

The GIS can also help with public education. According to a report issued in December 1989 by the Governor's Commission on Forestry and Forest Products, "There is a lack of public awareness of forest-resource management and its contributions to the economy and the environment. "

This need is recognized by an educational program at the Deep Portage Conservation Reserve, a 6,100-acre block of tax-forfeited forestland in Cass that was dedicated in the early '70s by former land commissioner Fay Harrington in cooperation with the county commissioners and the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League.

Brown's land department manages the reserve. The educational program is centered around the theme of utilizing and managing forest and wildlife resources. Here people can see, smell, and touch a new forest growing and turn their heads upward to the towering crown of a majestic Norway pine.

This and other on-the-spot educational endeavors create a better understanding of why certain trees have to be cut to sustain forests and increase diversity for wildlife.

Public education is clearly needed as Cass and other counties in northern Minnesota face the challenge of harvesting an overabundance of mature and overmature aspen. The problem is bridging the barriers between preservationists, who believe in hands-off management, and conservationists, who want wise use and management.

Gordon Gullion, a professor of wildlife management at the University of Minnesota, states, "We have become boxed into a serious situation as a consequence of our failure to properly manage aspen for the last two or three decades. Had there been a market for aspen earlier and had it been harvested in proper rotations in the 1950s and 1960s, we would not be in this situation." (See "The Grouse Man on Timber Cutting" on page 26.)

Gullion believes that efforts to make up for the unsatisfactory management practices of the past will be difficult. Admittedly, there was a reason for the limited harvesting: the lack of substantial markets for aspen in the past.

Today a new lumber plant is under construction in the neighboring county of Crow Wing. The $77 million mill, being built by MacMillan Bloedel (MB) headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, will produce parallel-strand lumber from aspen logs.

This reconstituted wood will be a stable product that can be used as core stock in doors, window frames, beams, joists, and decking.

The aspen will be purchased from private loggers in a procurement area within a 13-county radius of the plant. Much of it will come from Cass County. Seventy-five percent of the Cass aspen is over rotation age (40 to 50 years), representing a tremendous backlog of some 1.2 million cords.

According to Bill Brown, "If you were just interested in capturing the dollar, you would cut that wood as fast as you could." It would all be harvested in 10 years.

Instead, the land department will spread the harvest over 25 years, so some of the trees that are 50 years old today will be 80 when they are cut. Some of the value will be lost because the mortality rate in stands over 50 years is relatively high. But the visual impact of harvesting and the effect on wildlife will be lessened.

"If we utilize fast-growing aspen as reconstituted boards, which is what MB will be doing," says Brown, "we can afford to leave more pines and let them grow to 200-300 years. If the relatively cheap, fast-growing aspen can be taken, some of the aesthetics of the old-growth pine, oak, and other hardwood stands will be saved."

The goal is to let stands like the 80year-old Norway pines along the Deerfield Trail grow and harvest them at 140 years. "But I can assure you," says Brown, "that 50 years down the line, it's going to be such a beautiful, scenic area that the trees won't be cut, because people will want to see old-growth pines." And the aesthetically appealing old-growth maple, oak, ash, balsam fir, and spruce.

Although the average aspen harvest from county-managed land is small (12 to 14 acres per cutting block), Brown admits that a lot of the early aspen cuts in Cass were laid out in straight lines and squares. "Now we do an irregular line that follows the topography," he says. "Humans are structured animals, and we think in structured patterns. We need in our forest management to blend back in with nature. "

And that is exactly what Bill Brown is trying to do with the public forests in Cass County.


Gordon Gullion, professor of wildlife management at the University of Minnesota and a widely respected authority on ruffed grouse, wrote the following comments in a letter to the author.

With some reservations, I regard the expanding wood-fiber industry in northern Minnesota as the salvation for many wildlife-management problems. The increased industrial use of forest resources should provide the opportunity to produce much larger numbers of several important forest wildlife species.

The primary reservation I have is that the expanding cutting needs to be dispersed and the size of individual cutting blocks limited to under 40 acres with at least similar-sized areas between adjacent cuttings to maintain age-class diversity.

I think we have to bear in mind that any treatment of the forest, whether it be harvesting or preservation, is highly beneficial to some species of wildlife and highly detrimental to other species. A number of songbirds, some raptors, and undoubtedly a few mammals suffer when an old forest is clearcut. On the other hand, a considerable number of species, representing a much greater biomass of living material, benefit from this treatment.

But there is quite a marked difference in the wildlife benefits that accrue when we are harvesting aspen and allowing it to regenerate as compared to harvesting softwoods and allowing them to regenerate.

The aspen type is probably the most important overall forest wildlife habitat we have in Minnesota. Although a few species are dependent on conifer forests, their number is much smaller than the species associated with the aspen ecosystem.

What I believe is most important is that aspen is a short-lived species. Aspen 60 to 70 years old is usually overmature, becoming decadent, and is likely to disappear from the forest scene in the next 10 to 20 years. The best way to preserve aspen is by cutting at about 40- to 50-year intervals.

On the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area near Onamia, where I have been conducting experimental timber harvesting to improve wildlife habitat since 1968, it has been necessary to accelerate the rate of harvesting in this 65-year-old forest to be sure there will be sufficient aspen alive to provide the needed quality of regeneration.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, some 4.2 million acres of aspen, mostly in central and northern Minnesota, faced the threat of being lost from decadence. Once those stands die, it will be very difficult to get the aspen reestablished.

Once they die, the richness of wildlife habitat associated with aspen will be lost to a much poorer quality of habitat dominated by maples, birches, oaks, and other hardwoods, or the even less productive coniferous types.

Most aspen stands regenerate through root sucker growth. Incidentally, in some of the work I have been doing in the last few years, I'm finding that seedling regeneration is more prevalent than forestry textbooks lead us to believe.

Seedling regeneration requires bare mineral soil in a shade-free situation at a time when there is a good seed crop. Not every year is a good seed year, and if a good year doesn't coincide with the soil disturbance, too many annual weeds and other competing vegetation may become established on the site before the aspen seeds are dispersed.

An aspen area that has been cut in the spring will be filled with high-density sucker growth four to six or maybe eight feet tall by the end of the first growing season. This is quite a different story than we see where conifers have been removed. It is usually several years before significant forest cover is re-established on those sites.

My impression is that raptors such as goshawks, broadwings, horned and barred owls do quite well in much smaller forest tracts than the literature often suggests they need.

Sensitive logging of aging aspen shows promise of salvation for much of northern Minnesota's forest wildlife.
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Title Annotation:Battle over Bunyan's Gold; includes related information; innovative forest management
Author:Buckmann, Carol A.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:Minnesota turnabout.
Next Article:The time-warp trees of Comanche country.

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