Efforts to restore white pine to Minnesota's Northwoods are taking root

A white pine
A white pine rises into the sky on a tract of land belonging to John Rajala Thursday, October 13, 2022 near Grand Rapids, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

In a state renowned for its forests, there is arguably no Minnesota tree more majestic than the white pine. Giant white pines, some 150 feet tall, once covered much of the northern half of Minnesota. Just a tiny fraction of old growth trees remain, but efforts to bring them back are slowly taking root. MPR News reporter Dan Kraker covered the story and joined host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the tree’s past, present, and future.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The State Capitol Christmas tree is now in the Capitol rotunda in St. Paul. It's a lovely 18 and 1/2 footers, donated by Happy Land Tree Farms in Sandstone after winning the Christmas Tree grand championship award at the state fair this year. It's a beautiful tree.

Speaking of trees, of course, Minnesota's known for its forests. And there's one tree that's more majestic than all the rest, the white pine. Giant white pines, some 150 feet tall, once covered much of the northern half of the state. Just a tiny fraction of old growth trees remain, but efforts to bring them back are slowly taking root.

NPR News reporter Dan Kraker covered this story. He joins me to talk about it. Hey, Dan.

DAN KRAKER: Hey, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: How you doing?

DAN KRAKER: I'm well. Thanks for having me today.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, what drew you to this story?

DAN KRAKER: Well, if I can make a full confession, in part, it's because I love white pines. I love seeing the old growth trees in the boundary waters, just towering over the rest of the forest and providing that magical understory underneath with this thick carpet of needles.

And I live in Duluth, of course. And one of my favorite places is along the Lester River, where there's a lot of old growth white pine trees that still remain. So that was part of it.

I used to work in northern Arizona. And years ago, for NPR, I did a story celebrating the ponderosa pine, which is another iconic pine tree in the southwest. And I envisioned a similar story about the white pine. And I've been thinking about it for a while.

But then, I learned that John Pastor, who is a retired University of Minnesota Duluth professor, was writing a book about the white pine, and I thought, huh, that would be a good excuse to do some kind of story. So I called John up, and he was game. And it took over a year or so, but I eventually got to it.

CATHY WURZER: Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a big fan of the white pine too.

DAN KRAKER: It's hard not to, really.

CATHY WURZER: I mean, they're beautiful. I love those trees. I would have loved to have been back in time-- going back in time here, I would love to have seen what Minnesota used to look like back in the day. They look far different than they do now. Take us back to the late-- what, 1800s?

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, so I mean, the forest would have looked a lot different, like you said, I think, in a couple of different ways. I mean, first, there would have been just a lot more of these really huge trees, these old growth, especially big white and red pines, over 100 feet tall trunks, just several feet across. I mean, there just aren't that many of those left anymore after the logging era of the late 1800s, early 1900s.

And then, I think the other big difference, Cathy, is the forest would have been a lot more diverse back then. It wasn't just an ocean of pine like it's sometimes been described. There was a real mix of trees. I mean, there were these big pines dotting the landscape, but then there was this understory full of lots of other trees, from oak to maple to birch, just a real diversity.

And you don't see that as much nowadays. The forest tends to be younger, a lot less diverse, and with only a few different species. Aspen really tend to dominate now.

CATHY WURZER: So what, in your neck of the woods, logging started, and well, the white pine was logged away.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, I mean, that's what happened. And if I could back up just a second-- I mean, the history of white pine is in this country is really fascinating. I mean, going back even into the early days before the revolution, the white pine was actually on the flag that flew over Bunker Hill. John Pastor was telling me about this. And even two years before the Boston Tea Party, there was actually a white pine riot in New Hampshire because--

CATHY WURZER: What?

DAN KRAKER: --the King of England was claiming all of the white pine in the colonies because it was so prized to make ship masts, because it was so tall and so straight. And then, I mean, loggers just kind of swept across the country from the northeast to the Midwest because white pine was just so prized, was used to build everything, from barns to bridges to buildings all across the country. So the loggers came through Michigan, which is actually where most white pine were cut, then Wisconsin and then to Minnesota late 1800s, early 1900s.

And the peak in Minnesota, Cathy, was really the year 1900. The statistics are kind of startling. In just that year alone, 2.3 billion board feet of lumber was cut. That's enough white pine to build more than 600,000 two-storey homes-- or it's hard to imagine this-- but a nine-foot wide boardwalk literally all the way around the world at the equator.

And then, that same amount of white pine was cut every year for the next decade or so. So just an immense amount of white pine was cut. And then, as a result of that, by about 1930, most of the big white pines here were gone.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. And no one thought, of course, to regenerate-- to replant, I would think. How are folks restoring the white pine now? And I'm thinking about this because of my friends on the North Shore. They have a white pine reseeding program, a reforestation program that I know is pretty strong in the Knife River, Two Harbors area.

DAN KRAKER: Absolutely. So I mean, the main reason folks are trying to-- the main way that folks are trying to restore the white pine is just by planting a whole bunch of them, and because they weren't coming back on their own after logging because a lot of the big seed trees were gone.

And the big problem, as you know, is that deer love to eat the white pine seedlings. So it's not just a matter of planting the white pine. It's also about protecting those white pine seedlings from deer.

And the way that's been settled upon now after a lot of trial and error is a method called bud capping in which you actually staple-- it's pretty primitive actually. You staple a small square piece of paper over the leading bud on the white pine sapling, and that prevents the deer from eating it. So they can grow and become bigger white pines.

CATHY WURZER: And there's a lot of deer pressure, of course, in northern Minnesota. So folks who are trying to restore the forests, I mean, they are passionate about bringing the white pine back. Who did you talk to for this story?

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, so I mentioned John Pastor. He's a retired ecologist. He has this new book out. It's actually coming out in January, on the white pine.

But when I called him up, he suggested that I also should really reach out to John Rajala. And a lot of people in Minnesota might know the Rajala family name. They've been around for five generations now. They own a forest products company in northern Minnesota.

And so John Pastor and John Rajala and I went out to some Rajala family land. And John Rajala's father Jack is actually-- he's been called the Savior of the White Pine, the Godfather of the White Pine. He was the guy who really perfected that bud capping method. His family's been credited with planting over 3 million white pine, just them.

We spent time with him. He practices this kind of forestry called ecological forestry in which they manage the land for different species, not just white pine. They really try to mimic natural disturbances. And part of that is that they also leave some of the biggest and best white pines behind because they're super valuable in the sawmill, but they're even more valuable as seed trees to provide the next generation of big trees.

And that's an inherent tension for John Rajala. I talked to him about that. And let's listen to some of that conversation because he really talked about the balance of leaving some of those big trees standing but also needing to cut them to help pay for the work he does.

So are you a tree cutter and a tree hugger at the same time?

JOHN RAJALA: Yes. Yeah. However you'd want to call it, absolutely. The harvesting of the trees is a necessary part of it, and it's a good part of it.

Of course, it would break some people's hearts to see the saw hit that particular tree right there. And to be honest with you, it breaks my heart too. But when you are growing a thousand trees for every one of these so that for sure one of those 1,000 trees is going to replace this tree, both in quantity and in quality, it makes you feel a little bit less bad about it.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting, interesting. So we have a couple of minutes here left. When it comes to the ecosystem of the Northwoods, why is the white pine so important?

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, they're super important. I mean, they're really important for wildlife. Black bears, for example, are really reliant on them. Young bears especially need them to climb for shelter.

But it's much broader than that, Cathy. Ecologists referred to them as a foundational tree. That's what John Pastor told me. And here's some tape from him. He's a retired UMD ecologist, talking about what exactly that means.

JOHN PASTOR: This is a foundation of this whole ecosystem because so much of the sunlight, the energy that's coming into this forest, is being captured and controlled by these giant trees and their progeny. So whatever happens over here is really controlled by the white pine. So much of the food website and the energy flow through the forest and the carbon flux and nutrient flux through the forest is controlled by these kinds of trees.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, this is a great story. Before we go, I have to ask you. And maybe you asked this of your friends. What did the white pine mean to the folks you talked to and for you personally?

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, I mean, I did talk to John Rajala. He just talked about how it's such an important part of his family's legacy, his family's business.

I talked to him. He was standing next to one of these giants, and he's like-- it just makes him think about his family, his family's roots there. But also, even going back, and he knows Native American people have a strong cultural connection to the tree long before his family came.

Then, for John Pastor, he also talked about a personal connection. His dad was actually a carpenter who worked with white pine, so he remembers white pine being all around.

But it's just such an iconic tree, Cathy, like we talked about. For John Pastor, he was talking about-- he studies the Northwoods. And when he thinks about the Northwoods, he thinks about the white pine. I mean, that's the image that comes to his mind, these towering trees with an understory of maples turning bright red in the fall, just this iconic tree. It looms large in our past, and people really want to make sure that it looms large in our future too.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, great. I really appreciate their efforts. And I appreciate your effort here with this story. It was a good story. Thanks for doing it.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, I appreciate that, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Dan Kraker from Duluth. You can read more at mprnews.org.

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