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Minnesota turnabout.

On returning to northern Minnesota for the holidays last December, I was surprised to see articles on forestry appearing almost daily in the local newspapers. I was even more surprised by their tone. Nearly all involved controversies over timber sales or over construction of new wood-products plants.

This represented a dramatic change from late 1988, when I left a position with Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and moved to Washington, DC. At that time the state's forestry community was promoting growth in the forest-products sector of the state's economy. Few articles on forestry were hitting the press, but those that did make the news were positive.

The turnabout was touched off by a group of environmental activists who began voicing concern about the impact of expanded timber harvesting. Though small in number, the environmentalists struck a responsive chord among Minnesota's citizens.

The story of what is happening in Minnesota reflects the wave of environmental awareness spreading across the nation. It is a story about citizens with new values questioning how our forests are being managed. It is a story that has clear parallels with controversies over our national forests, and it may foretell what could occur in other states.


Before Europeans began settling Minnesota, the state was far more extensively forested than it is today. The north-central and eastern parts were covered by hardwoods and many large, almost pure stands of old-growth white, red, and jack pine. During the middle 1800s, logging operations sprung up in central Minnesota and spread rapidly to the north. By the 1930s, most of the large pine forests had disappeared, and the logging camps and sawmills had closed one by one.

The exploitation of the original forests provided essential raw materials and capital for the state's development, but the destruction and waste during this logging era were decried by many. Millions of acres of forest were reduced to stumps, with little or no effort at replanting.

In the early 20th century, the state came into ownership of vast acreages of former forestland as a result of tax forfeitures. What had happened was the classic cut-and-run scenario: owners defaulting on taxes on logged-over lands that promised little prospect of economic return for many years to come.

The state gave the counties the right to manage and collect proceeds from about half of these tax-forfeiture lands, although technically the state still owned them.

Today Minnesota has about five million acres in state and county forestland -more than any other state in the nation. These lands represent 36 percent of the state's total forestland and amount to more than twice its national-forest acreage.

Its five million acres of state and county timberland give Minnesota a superb opportunity to shape its own forestry future. But that land is also why the DNR is the target of criticism about land stewardship since the Department of Natural Resources is the lead forestry agency in the state.


Over the last decade, Minnesota's forestry sector has experienced renewed interest and vigor. Two forces came together in the 1970s to create this resurgence: first, technological innovations that transformed the state's economically undesirable aspen into a valuable resource, and second, efforts within the state's forestry community to promote its underutilized resources.

The timber industry's use of the second-growth aspen that replaced Minnesota's original pine and hardwood forests was modest during the 1970s. Since aspen's normal lifespan ranges from 40 to 60 years, much of it had grown mature and overmature by then. Most of it was used for pulp and paper.

Fortunately, the new technologies made it possible to chip and grind small, low-grade aspen and glue and press it into new reconstituted products such as waferboard and oriented strandboard (OSB). These products were competitive with softwood plywood from the West Coast, both structurally and economically.

At a 1984 Governor's Conference on forest-industry development, Dr. John Haygreen, former head of the forest-products department of the University of Minnesota, said, "The manufacture of most wood products no longer need be tied closely to the type of timber available. We are now at a point when it is technically possible to make a product suitable for almost any wood-use markets from almost any type of resource. "

By that time, Minnesota had become the national leader in the manufacture of waferboard and OSB.

At the same time, many leaders in government, academia, the forest industry, and environmental groups began working together to improve the use and management of the state's forests. In 1977 the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources asked George Banzhaf & Company, a forest-resource consulting group, to identify and evaluate options for development of the forestry sector.

Soon thereafter, the state legislature passed a major piece of new forestry legislation called the Minnesota Forest Management Act of 1982. This new law provided for significant capital investments in reforestation, tree improvement, fire protection, and forest roads. It also called for new resource inventories and comprehensive planning to develop better information about the resource base.

These efforts were enhanced by the strong support of Governor Rudy Perpich, who saw great potential for economic development in the forestry sector-already the state's third largest industry. Perpich also saw an opportunity to alleviate some of the economic hardship on northeastern Minnesota's Iron Range, where his hometown is located. Many small mining communities were experiencing severe unemployment problems, and harvesting aspen would create jobs.

Between 1979 and 1990, the forest-products industry built or expanded 11 woodproducts plants in Minnesota, resulting in an infusion of more than $1.4 billion of investment capital. These plants, which primarily produced paper, waferboard, and oriented strandboard, increased wood use in the state by nearly 50 percent.

Moreover, the DNR projects that between 1990 and 1995, an additional $2.2 billion will be invested in the state, resulting in another 1.4 million cords of wood being used. This would effectively double the state's total timber harvests from the 1979 level and bring the total harvest very close to the allowable-cut level for aspen calculated by the DNR.


In July 1989, a small group of citizens petitioned the state Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to prepare a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) on the potential effects of the unprecedented timber harvesting. The EQB is a coordinating body dealing with statewide environmental policy. The petition stated that there had been no environmental impact studies addressing the cumulative impacts of expanded harvesting.

The environmental activists primarily responsible for the petition were Jim Woehrle, a freelance writer living in a log cabin near Floodwood, and Bob Lohman, a carpenter and head of the Preserve Our Land environmental group in Little Falls. They had begun discussing the expanded timber harvesting during the winter of 1988 and wondered whether anyone had really considered the implications for the overall forest environment.

Woehrle says that they started searching for a way to address their concerns and discovered a perfect opportunity: a little-known provision in the state's environmental review rules that allowed for the preparation of a generic environmental impact statement if certain criteria were met. Only one other GEIS had ever been done in the state, and it had been a much more limited study focusing on the site for a metropolitan stadium. To Woehrle and Lohman, their concerns met the GEIS criteria, and a GEIS seemed to be the only way to address their broad array of concerns. So they circulated a petition.

Among their specific concerns, they listed the possibility of a future timber shortage, creation of another boom-and-bust timber economy similar to that of a century before, the threat of large logging companies driving small family operators out of business, the danger of extensive clearcutting and creation of an aspen monoculture, loss of forest diversity and destruction of wildlife and plant species that thrive on old-growth ecosystems, water-quality impacts from increased use of pesticides and fertilizers, soil erosion from an increased forest road system, and potential effects of global warming on the forest resource.

Their petition stated, "None of the signers of this citizen's petition are opposed to progress, if it's the result of thoroughly informed planning. " However, they questioned the DNR's information and stated that "the agency as a whole has been captured by those who have rejected responsible future resource management in favor of short-term economic gain. "

"What we really wanted was to increase public awareness of these issues," says Woehrle. "We never really thought that we'd get the study." But within a few months, the petition gained support from other environmental groups in the state, including the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and Project Environment Foundation.

Along with industry groups, these environmental organizations were already actively involved in a DNR study of the impact of expanded harvesting. But the environmentalists came out in favor of a GEIS in addition to the ongoing DNR study.

The press began to focus on the issues raised by the petition. Articles and editorials appeared in newspapers throughout the state and generated a groundswell of grassroots support. With the public's growing concern for the environment and the increased visibility of timber-harvesting activities in the state, the people of Minnesota were attentive and ready to support the petition.

The DNR's planning office did a survey in December 1988 that might have foretold this response. The survey concluded that 75 percent of Minnesota's citizens opposed increased harvesting on public lands.

Many of the articles in the press focused on the quality of information on timber supplies and the question of whether the state would have enough timber to meet increasing demands.

Woehrle suggests, however, that "the central question is not whether there will be enough timber, but whether or not we should cut it at all." Underlying this question, according to Woehrle, are philosophical issues, such as "Whose woods are these?" and "Who should make the decisions as to how they are managed?"

These are questions being heard throughout the nation in disputes over the management of public forestland. Woehrle believes that more grassroots involvement is needed in the planning and decision-making processes.

To allow the DNR to continue its study, the Environmental Quality Board deferred action on the petition. Increasing media coverage eroded the credibility of the DNR study, however, and it was discontinued.

Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, an association representing many of the state's major forestry companies, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that any resolution of the timber-harvesting issue must be above reproach in the eyes of all interested citizens. "

Although the industry group initially argued that a GEIS was not necessary, it later decided to support the study. Brandt said, "We don't feel there are any significant environmental impacts from forest management in Minnesota, and we believe the study will bear that out."

Once its own study broke up, the DNR also came out in support of the GEIS. Steve Thorne, the DNR's deputy commissioner, expressed his agency's support at a December 1989 meeting of the Environmental Quality Board. "I believe that DNR forest management and planning are currently being carried out in a highly professional manner, and the GEIS will demonstrate this," stated Thorne. He added that the DNR supported the study because it would generate useful information and provide a major opportunity to educate the public about issues of forest management.

At the same meeting, the EQB voted unanimously to establish an advisory committee to guide the GEIS study. The board later requested more than $1 million from the state legislature for an estimated 1 1/2- to two-year study. Although several legislators opposed the GEIS, calling it unnecessary and too costly, the legislature approved a first-year funding of $100,000.

Ten individuals representing various interest groups were selected for the advisory committee. Last March, the committee began a series of meetings to determine the study's scope.


The current situation in Minnesota involves many of the same issues facing the U.S. Forest Service and its management of our national forests. The spotted owl is not present, but sustained-yield timber supply, old-growth management, clearcutting, and biodiversity are all there.

The events in Minnesota might be viewed as a microcosm of the national picture. Minnesota's situation augurs for the probability of similar controversy in other states that have significant state and county forestlands.

What is unique is that these issues have suddenly emerged at the state level with a much higher level of intensity than was true in the past.

As environmental activism spreads, controversy might have been inevitable no matter what. However, recently proposed federal policies increased the likelihood. The Forest Service, in its long-range planning (the Resources Planning Act), has proposed a shift in management emphasis on the national forests toward nontimber values, such as recreation and fish and wildlife habitat. This shift would create a heavier reliance on state and private lands for timber production.

The Minnesota DNR has called the federal proposal flawed." In its written comments to the Forest Service, the DNR argued that states with large amounts of nonfederal public land (e.g., Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania) would "face increased pressure to produce greater timber outputs while at the same time facing pressures from environmental groups to follow the Forest Service's lead to increase production of recreation, water, fish, and wildlife."

In other words, the DNR is arguing that the Forest Service's shift in policy would in essence shift some of the federal problems to state and county lands. (See "New Investment Strategies" on this page.)

For me, seeing these controversies arise so quickly is not only surprising, but also ironic. Minnesota was widely perceived to have one of the most enlightened programs in the nation. I would not have foreseen that the process used by the DNR and the information developed would so quickly become the subject of such controversy.

It will be interesting to see whether a revised planning process can be fashioned that will work within the state's new, more highly charged political environment.

For several years, forestry officials in Michigan have been exploring an innovative concept to increase funding for forest management on state lands. Rather than relying solely on the state legislature for funds, they have proposed a Michigan Development Fund for private investors, who would provide the capital for selected timber-management activities with promising long-term rates of return.

This fund would help Michigan increase its timber supply from state lands through intensified management on fewer acres. This would allow increased recreation and other nontimber uses on other state lands.

Like Minnesota, a significant amount of Michigan's timberland is owned and managed by the state-roughly 22 percent; At present, funding comes almost entirely from timber-sale receipts. These revenues reflect past levels of state investment in forest management, which have been "woefully low, " according to Leslie Lokken of the Governor's council on economic development, and Ron Murray, of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources. "Among progressive industrial forest managers, the generally accepted minimum standard for investment in management practices is an average of $3 per acre per year," say Lokken and Murray. "Michigan is currently investing 40 cents an acre. "

The establishment of a development fund was first proposed in 1983. Tile idea is that the fund borrows money from private investors through bond issuances and invests it in management on highly productive state forestlands. The rate of return would be high enough to attract investors and allow the fund to become self-supporting.

In 1984 the Michigan DNR began a detailed analysis of management costs and projected rates of return on all principal forest types in the state. It identified 43 opportunities for which the projected real internal rates of return "above inflation-ranged from four to more than 25 percent.

Bills to create the fund have been introduced and passed Michigan's state House last May. The state Senate is also expected to pass the legislation. "Both forestry and finance are pretty complex topics," says Murray of tile DNR. "When you bring tile two together, as, this bill does, it takes some time for explaining. " If the bill passes, it will be the first time that this type of strategy has actually been put into practice.
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Title Annotation:Battle over Bunyan's Gold; forestry sector resurgence
Author:Gray, Gerald
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:Charting a course for nonfederal forests.
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