'A huge concern': December storm did long-term damage to state's forests

Deep snow is seen on a trail
Heavy, damaging snow forced trees to bow and break on the Yukon Trail outside of Two Harbors, Minn.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Greg Beck manages 35,000 acres of forest in east-central Minnesota as land commissioner and county forester in Pine County.

He’s worked there for more than three decades. And neither he nor anyone else he’s talked to can recall a winter storm that did such widespread damage to the region’s forests as the storm that dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow across much of the state in mid-December, bending and breaking countless trees.

“We can only be hopeful that some of it will spring back up come summer,” Beck said. “But with the increasing amount of snowfall we keep getting, putting more weight on to them … it's looking a little bit bleak at the moment.”

Patches of trees
Young aspen stand on recreation trail at Nemadji State Forest.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Beck estimates about 20 percent of the county’s forests are damaged, much of them young aspen trees. He said they’re either laying flat on the ground, “or bowed over so terribly bad that it's questionable whether they're going to recover or not."

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

He ran some quick numbers, and came up with a loss “of future revenue of $3.5 million possibly in damages."

That’s just in his area.

Beck and others are quick to point out that it's still far too early to tell the full extent of the damage. Foresters won't be able to come up with accurate estimates until the snow melts. And some of the bent-over trees could straighten up when the snow melts.

But Rick Horton, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, said his members, which include the state's large forest products manufacturers, are concerned.

“If that damage is extensive, that really impacts our future fiber supply. So we're going to find ourselves in 20 years, 25 years, looking at a big gap where there's less available fiber, because we lost all this growth.”

Like wet concrete

The powerful storm that moved into the state on Dec. 13 dumped more than eight inches of snow northern Minnesota, with more than a foot across much of the region.

But it wasn’t the amount of snow that caused so much damage. The exceptionally high water content of the snow produced snow that felt like wet concrete. It stuck to trees and branches, bending younger, more flexible trees down, but also snapping branches and trunks in two.

“That storm might be the most damaging storm to Minnesota's forests of any winter storm in my career,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resoures senior climatologist Kenny Blumenfeld.

It wasn't like a “blowdown,” when straight line winds mow down trees in a relatively limited area. This storm, Blumenfeld said, wasn’t nearly so concentrated, but the damage was much more widespread.

“In any one area, it may look minor, but when you add it all up, it’s actually a massive tree damage event.”

Young aspen fared worst

Forest officials say young stands of aspen were especially hard hit. That's significant because aspen is by far the most widely used tree species in Minnesota mills, used to make siding and paper products.

Aspen re-sprouts naturally when it’s clear-cut. But depending on the scope of the damage at specific sites, Minnesota DNR timber program supervisor John Trimble said in some places crews may have to raze the damaged trees with a bulldozer to help the forest regenerate.

In other spots they may leave the forest be. In yet others crews may conduct salvage logging operations to save some valuable timber.

Damage to pine trees
Damage to pine stands near Sturgeon Lake. A local forester reported "Patches of 100% damage and other stands just a few trees per acre. Most damage is trees bent in C shapes.”
Courtesy of Rick Horton, Minnesota Forest Industries

Chris Henkel, a DNR forestry supervisor in Sandstone, said thousands of acres of trees were battered in several state forests in east-central Minnesota, primarily in the Nemadji, General Andrews and St. Croix state forests.

He estimates between 5 and 10 percent of mature trees were damaged. Norway pines he says were hardest hit.

“Some of them suffered upwards of 20 percent damage or more, including those broken tops, snapped trees and the significant lean,” he said.

Still, Henkel doesn't see a massive concern statewide. He said foresters in hard-hit areas will be busy assessing the damage and devising treatment plans. But he doesn’t feel the storm did as much damage as events such as a blowdown event in 2011 that flattened thousands of trees in eastern Minnesota.

“Our forests are resilient,” Henkel said. “We have a lot of forested land in Pine County that's doing just fine and healthy as can be.”

Trails still being cleared

Meanwhile, a month after the storm, volunteers are still clearing trees from snowmobile, hiking and cross-country ski trails around the state.

In Carlton County, five snowmobile clubs gathered dozens of volunteers and spent hours wielding chain saws, hand saws and brush axes to clear trails by hand.

Carlton County Land Commissioner Greg Bernu said in some areas, crews were only able to clear a half mile of trail a day.

“Imagine trying to ride a snowmobile through a hedgerow of lilacs, that's what it looks like right now,” Bernu said. “With all these trees bent over, it's an impenetrable mass of small branches, with the tops of those trees embedded in the snow.”

Bernu said he’s currently trying to quantify the damage to the trails to submit to the state’s homeland security emergency management division for possible reimbursement.

“We're probably easily looking at in the neighborhood of $750,000 to $1 million of expenditures just to get these trails back to pre-storm condition,” he said.

Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association President Scott Wakefield estimates that clubs have 75 to 80 percent of the trails open in the worst hit areas. He said many are still looking or volunteers.

“Bring your snowmobile up, please bring a chainsaw along with you and help the snowmobile clubs get these trails opened,” Wakefield said.

At Jay Cooke State Park, cross-country ski trails are still closed a month after the storm. Assistant park manager Ty Gangelhoff says staff and volunteers have cleared at least a thousand trees of the trails by hand.

He hopes to have the first trails open in a week or two. But he said he anticipates that some trails will remain closed all winter.

“So we ask for the public's patience with that. We know that it's a snowy winter here and people want to go out in the park. But with the damage we’ve had, it’s going to be a long cleanup effort.”