Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources are setting aside a 20-year-old forest management policy that delays logging operations on some parcels of land to ensure that up to 15 percent of state forests grow old.
At the same time, the DNR officials are placing boreal owls and northern goshawks on a list of species of special concern because of projected habitat loss in that same older forest ecosystem.
The conflicting decisions point to competing missions at the DNR, which manages about four million acres of forest. More than half of those acres comprise school trust land, where income from timber sales supports public school budgets. The agency has been under pressure from the legislature to boost income from those lands.
In the early 1990s, as the timber industry reached its modern peak, a court settlement required the DNR to develop a management policy that ensured some portion of the state's forests would grow old.
Now that the forest products industry has declined for several years, that policy can be set aside, said Craig Schmid, deputy director of the DNR Forestry Division.
"We recognize that old forest habitat is important out there, and we're going to make sure that it's there," he said. "We just don't need to be so intent and deliberate, realizing that the harvest level is half of what we anticipated it would be."
Schmid said the dramatic decline in timber cutting basically guarantees the existence of older forests. In addition to lower harvests, other factors also contribute to the existence of older forests — such as guidelines for leaving some trees standing when an area is cut, and for leaving a buffer zone along rivers, he said.
But the decision comes at the same time the DNR's Division of Ecological and Water Resources is proposing to place boreal owls and northern goshawks on its list of "species of special concern" because of the risk of habitat loss involving older trees.
Steve Wilson, a retired DNR planner who helped design the original policy and used it for years to plan the management of forests in northeastern Minnesota, said old trees are an important part of a complex and fragile web of life. Dying aspen provide homes for woodpeckers, and their cavities are later used by a whole community of creatures, ranging from owls to flying squirrels to amphibians and even mammals.
Wilson said northern Minnesota is facing a shortage of 40- to 50-year-old aspen trees at the prime age for harvesting. But the woods are full of aspen older than 50 and younger than 30. That means there aren't enough aspen trees for the industry's needs and to ensure the future of older forests.
"They want those 40-50 year-old trees, and those are some of the same acres that you need to withhold from harvest over time in order to provide old forest in perpetuity on state land," he said. "And therein lies the rub."
Wilson also said the DNR should not take credit for older forests owned by county and federal governments and private interests, because the state has no control over them. The document announcing the new policy lumps all ownerships together.
Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology, thinks the new policy is a good one. But he said the DNR should take the time to measure the ages of state-owned forests separately.
"They need to get some more detailed information for DNR timberlands only, and I think people would be more reassured," he said.
Frelich also said the DNR is chronically underfunded for the type of monitoring it will need to do, to make sure the new policy is working.
The new forest management policy will help the state's forest products industry, which has been in sharp decline for several years.
Tim O'Hara, vice president of forest policy for the trade group Minnesota Forest Industries, said freeing the DNR from the requirement to plan for older forests will allow the agency to provide more of the higher-quality wood the industry needs.
"It gives them the flexibility to manage the whole wide range of age classes rather than just managing the old," O'Hara said, "and not being able to manage that higher quality timber in the 40-60-year-old ages for aspen, for instance." By "managing," O'Hara means cutting trees.
DNR officials say they will monitor forest stands and adapt the policy as necessary to make sure there is about 12 percent of land in older forest. If the harvest rises significantly and threatens habitat, the agency plans to revisit the policy.