Outside in MN

In northern Minnesota, a primeval land of the Lost 40

DNR forest ecologist AmberBeth VanNingen
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forest ecologist AmberBeth VanNingen helps oversee Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) in northeastern Minnesota, which includes the Lost 40 SNA.
Vicki Olson / For MPR News

This is a place where some of Minnesota's largest trees tower over some of the state's most fragile plants, a virgin forest that, legend has it, was spared the ax because surveyors mapped it mistakenly as a wetland.

It still wears its name well: the Lost 40.

The tract, a Minnesota scientific and natural area, preserves a remnant of the state's forest primeval. A walk-through finds trees about 130 feet tall, perhaps 300 years old. The biggest have trunks that need two or even three people holding hands to surround them. They include valuable white pine cherished by wood workers and the state's largest red pine.

"When the logging came through these trees were left. They were lost to time," said AmberBeth VanNingen, a forest ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

The Lost Forty
The Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area is in north central Minnesota's Itasca County.
Vicki Olson / For MPR News

The Lost 40's geology includes an 11,000-year-old ice age relic known as an esker, which VanNingen described as a "glacial, gravelly deposit."

It also holds colonies of delicate Indian Pipe. The plant isn't especially rare but it looks unnatural — ghost white surrounded by green plants and the brown forest floor. The plant has no chlorophyll and is fragile.

"If you were to touch it, it's very wet and would almost dissolve in your hands," VanNingen added.

The Lost 40 is one of 160 tracts designated as scientific and natural areas in Minnesota, protecting habitat and geographic features. It borders Minnesota's vast northern peatlands, the largest expanse in the Lower 48.

VanNingen says white settlers wanted to farm them and tried to ditch and drain the peatlands.

"It's flat. The soil looks nice and dark, very organic soil," she said. "The land fought back. This cannot be farmed. And that was abandoned, and so it was thought of as waste land. But we know now today, of course, it's not wasteland. Those wetlands...hold water for us, they hold carbon for us."

Hunters are allowed on the Lost 40 to slow deer predation of young white pine. Otherwise, human activity on the state's scientific and natural areas is limited to hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, photography and bird watching. Camping, picnics and motorized vehicles are banned.

These natural areas protect islands of habitat diminished almost everywhere by farming and logging, VanNingen said, adding that there's another bonus.

"There's a value for people as well just having a place to go and see this beautiful creation that we've blessed with," she said. "It's beautiful. It's awe inspiring, I think, no matter who you are."

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News