This large management project is intended to create a forest with less aspen and birch than today, and more pine. The plan opens almost 13,000 acres to logging, much of that within a half dozen miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Superior National Forest officials say much of the logging is to remove overly mature trees. Unless logged, they say, the older jack pine stands will be taken over aspens and maples.
"Sometimes we need to actually do some active management on the ground," says Kris Reichenbach, with the Superior National Forest in Duluth. "To maintain the kind of conditions and the kind of diversity that we want out there for wildlife species, for recreation, and to maintain ecological types."
Most of the logging would be clear-cut, with a small number of trees left behind in those cuts as reserves. For almost every acre logged, an acre will be planted or regenerated with a focus on pine.
"To create more of those younger forest stands now so that then over time, those will continue and grow into the mid and older age classes," Reichenbach says. "So we can maintain that spread of age classes and forest types that we want across the forest."
Reichenbach says the final plan released this week responds to conservation group's concerns. Fewer acres will be cut, including in one hot button region near Picket Lake. Reichenbach says the final plan includes permanently closing some 35 miles of forest roads.
The Echo Trail Management Project has been in the works for three years. Much of the debate has centered over roadless areas.
In a draft plan, some trees targeted for logging were in areas protected from cutting under President Clinton's 2001 Roadless Conservation rule. President Bush had changed how that rule would be applied, opening up the possibility of harvest, but a Federal court put the roadless areas back off limits last fall.
Other trees to be cut were on land determined roadless in a 2002 Superior National Forest inventory, and some of those are still scheduled for harvest.
Conservationists are encouraged with changes to the plan since it was released as a draft plan last spring. But they're also cautious.
"I guess my first blush take is that I think the Forest Service has improved the plan from the draft, addressing some of the conservation concerns that were raised during the draft plan," says Kevin Proescholdt, who directs the Izaak Walton League's Wilderness and Public Lands Program.
"We appreciate that," he says. "We still have not had a chance to really thoroughly delve into it. It's certainly not everything that we had hoped for, but it's ... moving in the right direction."
But Proescholdt says even the final plan targets some trees in areas with roadless qualities. Two of those regions were identified since the Clinton roadless rule.
"This final plan does project that two of those forest plan roadless areas being slated for management, and harvest," Proescholdt says. "And that does concern us."
However, as is often said, the devil is in the details. These details are laid out in a quarter inch thick record of decision, and an environmental impact statement the size of a Twin Cities phone book. Conservation leaders like Proescholdt, say it will take time to absorb it all.
"We'll keep poring through the plan and trying to understand it better, as we discover more and more about what's inside," Proescholdt says.
The Echo Trail Management plan is published today in the Federal Register. A legal notice about the plan will be published Saturday in the regional newspaper, the Timberjay. That starts a 45 day appeals period, before the plan can take effect.