Northern Minnesota once boasted stands of massive white and red pine — giants that lived up to 350 years, with trunks 4 or 5 feet in diameter.
When they were logged out, trees with shorter life spans, like birch, took their place. Now, those trees are dying off.
What's the answer? For now, it's plant more trees.
“There's so much destruction," said Emily Krulc as she and her Minnesota Conservation Corps team planted white pine seedlings on a recent, wet day in Minnesota's Arrowhead region. "How can we find a balance between our needs, human needs, and also still caring for the lands that essentially [are] going to be what sustains us?”
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Efforts to restore Minnesota’s iconic forests face numerous obstacles — from invasive species competing for space to deer eating tree seedlings before they get a chance to grow. But they're crucial to the Arrowhead’s ability to continue providing environmental and economic benefits for decades to come.
Planting is the painstaking, unheralded work that will give the forests a chance.
‘We have to get out there and make it happen’
Krulc and her team descended on a football field-sized patch of forestland west of Schroeder, Minn., to plant 350 tree seedlings — mostly white pine — one morning last month.
Using planter bars and chainsaws to clear out any undesired growth, they planted a tree every 10 to 12 feet. Figuring out exactly where to plant a tree is something of a guessing game.
“Humans don't always know where trees want to go,” Krulc said, “so we're kind of doing our best to guess you know where these white pines might like to grow and getting them in the ground.”
Sometimes it works best to plant a baby tree among fallen branches lying on the ground, she said. Other times, trees just go where the soil is soft enough to get them in the ground.
When the seedlings get a little older, workers plan to install fencing around the tree or attach bud caps, paper stapled over the top of the tree. These measures protect the young trees from hungry deer.
The Conservation Corps crew was working on land owned by the Rajala Woods Foundation, a nonprofit established by the electrical utility Minnesota Power.
This 1,200-acre plot sits along Moose Creek, about a 30-minute drive inland from Lake Superior. The landscape is a thick, relatively young forest. Utility towers stand out above the trees, slinging wires above the trees.
“If you look around, you're challenged to see any white pine or red pine or jack pine,” said Kurt Anderson, the foundation’s chair.
Anderson’s job is to change that. Rajala Woods is in the early stages of a project to plant 3 million white pine and other trees with long lifespans in forests in central and northeastern Minnesota.
Its namesake, Jack Rajala, was a white pine advocate who planted some 3 million trees in his own lifetime. He also made his living from the timber industry that was responsible for cutting most of the trees in the first place.
Logging of the huge white pine began in Minnesota in the mid-19th century.
Many white and red pine were harvested and sent to market in the following decades. “At that time the forest supply of these long-lived tree species seemed inexhaustible. And that obviously wasn't the case,” Anderson said.
Some major wildfires and droughts took a toll on the woods, too.
As the forest grew back, it was different. Birch and other trees with shorter life spans, like aspen and balsam fir, became abundant. Long-lived pines, more scarce.
Anderson said people realized white pine preservation and restoration needed attention as early as the 1920s. But early efforts to restore white pine backfired.
“White pine was brought over to Europe to grow in some nurseries to bring back over here,” Anderson said, “and during that overseas trip, blister rust was introduced to white pine.”
Blister rust, a fungus that can infect and kill white pine, became a veritable enemy. So did a growing population of whitetail deer, which found an ideal habitat in forests that had been cleared out by logging.
Modern forest restorers have learned from past mistakes. In 1997, Rajala published a guidebook for how he believed restoration should happen.
“If we want to bring [the white pine] back, we have to do far more than wait for it to just happen —we have to get out there and make it happen,” Rajala wrote in “Bringing Back the White Pine.”
Today, Anderson said, the short-lived tree species are reaching the end of their lifespan. That explains the declining birch stands along Lake Superior.
As this continues, he said a worst-case scenario means an unrecognizable forest.
“You end up with a scrubland, a brush scrubland that doesn't provide a lot of ecological benefit. It doesn't provide a lot of economic benefit,” Anderson said. “There's not much timber there to harvest, it doesn't host a lot of wildlife habitat.”
Some scientists have projected a savanna-like habitat in northeast Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.
Jim Manolis, forest conservation program director at The Nature Conservancy, said a “perfect storm of factors” are leading to this dying forest — from bugs to invasive species to hotter temperatures to the deer.
“Forests along the North Shore are dying,” he said. “I think it's safe to say there's hundreds of thousands of acres that are in poor condition and need some help.”
While there’s no measurement on exactly how much forest is dying or at risk, Manolis said, the Nature Conservancy is working on a comprehensive map using lidar and other data sources.
Forest advocates say there’s hope for the white pine, but not without a lot of human intervention.
“We have to be a little smarter as a society about trying to think out not just 50 years in advance,” Anderson said, “but maybe 150 years in advance.”
This forward thinking would prime the forest to withstand climate change and economic changes. It’d also make it a continued haven for nature lovers, and the creatures that keep them coming back.
‘You can feel the age of a forest’
Shawn Perich caught his first brook trout at age 4 and was instantly hooked on fishing.
When he’s fly-fishing, Perich switches off the outside world.
“There's really nothing else going on for me except being here in the river and feeling the current wrapping around me as I wade in the stream,” he said, “and just being entirely focused on where I'm placing that fly and whether I can get a fish to strike.”
Perich has fished for trout across North America, he said, but he always finds himself drawn back to the North Shore.
He lives with his dog, Rainy, in Hovland, Minn., and works as a publisher of Northern Wilds magazine.
Perich spends a lot of time in the North Shore streams that feed into Lake Superior. He and Rainy were visiting one of his favorite spots — he swore a reporter to secrecy on its exact location.
He caught two brook trout in as many casts one recent morning. Then he pulled in several more of the color-spotted golden fish, releasing each back to the stream.
“They’re so pretty, it’s just hard to keep ‘em,” he said after pulling in a fish.
A seasoned angler, Perich knows what makes a good home for brook trout.
For one, they need cool water — he said one brook felt like an “ice cube” once out of the stream. And that cool water comes from shade.
Tall, old trees like the white pine can provide shade for these Lake Superior tributaries their entire length through the forest.
Being in a stand of white pine that could be centuries old feels different, Perich said. And indescribable.
“That's a hard thing to put into words, really,” he said. “But you can feel the age of a forest. When you walk into a standard white pine you can tell you're in a special place.”
Perich recognizes the forest will never return to how it was before Europeans arrived. It’s critical that forest restoration efforts continue to look forward, he said.
Even if current restoration projects succeed, the forest won’t be what it used to be. But, planners hope, it’ll be a diverse, healthy forest that’s more resistant to climate change and one that resembles the nature Minnesotans cherish.
“The land was here before us, the land will probably be here after us. And we have to work with nature,” Perich said. “And nature itself really hasn't changed that much over that period of time.
“And if we can continue to perpetuate what's here, what's supposed to be here, I don't know if there's anything better we can do.”