COMMENTARY | Midpoint of Minnesota DNR’s timber harvest plan means a time to reflect, examine future

Chandra Rosenthal

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Originally published in and reprinted with permission of Outdoor News.

Midpoint of Minnesota DNR’s timber harvest plan means a time to reflect, examine future

In 2018, the state of Minnesota launched its Strategic Timber Harvest Initiative. Despite its name, this program proved to be far more indiscriminate than strategic.

This program set quotas for logging on state-administered forest lands, including state wildlife management areas that are created to provide habitat for deer, moose, grouse, hawks and owls, fishers, martens, and many other forest-dwelling species. Despite state laws that mandate this logging must be done to prioritize wildlife needs, the harvest quotas proved to have a life of their own.

Expressions of concern and even public protests about needless habitat destruction from the DNR’s own biologists, botanists, and other resource specialists were routinely ignored. My organization, Public Employees for Envrionmental Responsibility, did a survey of DNR staff that confirmed the almost total disconnect between field management staff and top leadership. For example, we obtained one employee log recounting 121 instances of habitat staff recommendations being overruled by timber managers.

While the wildlife staff objections fell on deaf ears within the DNR, they did draw the attention of the federal oversight agency that also provides much of DNR’s funding through federal grants.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervened to conduct field inspections in three areas and compiled a report that identified six different ways in which the DNR’s timber quotes “were not conducted in accordance with” federal law due to excessive harvesting.

While this report was initially kept private, it finally surfaced in 2022. Incredibly, these revelations seemed to have no effect, as the DNR did not mend its ways and the timber harvests continued. That forced the federal agency to take the almost unprecedented step of withholding at least $30 million of federal aid dollars from the DNR.

That step certainly got the DNR’s attention. To restore federal funding, the two agencies have now worked out an agreement where federal funding is no longer pre-approved. Instead, any DNR timber projects must first receive federal site inspections and reviews by the DNR wildlife staff whose concerns had previously been long ignored.

Unfortunately, this uneasy intergovernmental truce has not resolved the fundamental problem. At this moment, Minnesota is at the halfway point in the Strategic Timber Harvest Initiative plan.

The plan still calls for harvesting all the remaining older forests on managed lands with the exception of just 2.5% of its aspen acreage. To put this in perspective, just 12 years ago, nearly one-third (30%) of state forests were classified as “older.”

This halfway point would be a good moment to take a step back to reflect on what the DNR is doing to state-administered forests. Before turning the chainsaws back on, the DNR should commit to subjecting its timber program to comprehensive, transparent, and independent environmental scrutiny. The recently announced audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, for example, will answer many questions and is a good starting point.

Before plunging ahead with the second half of the DNR’s timber-harvest initiative, the entire program should undergo a thorough analysis of alternatives, including a “no-action” alternative and granting public access to timber project documentation and site inspection planning through scoping. Such transparency and public involvement are long overdue.

This review could also help us constructively address a range of land-management issues. For example, while hunters blame wolves for a lack of deer, they might want to also examine whether the growing loss of critical winter cover that helps deer make it through tough winters. That loss of cover is making those deer less capable of withstanding predation by wolves.

Essentially, Minnesota needs to determine how to balance the need to adequately protect older forests, which serve as habitat critical for many species, against its capacity to create future young forest habitat in order to meet the cord quota demands of the timber industry.

Until that balance is struck, Minnesota needs to pause timber harvesting, especially on state wildlife management areas. If the DNR and the state are not willing to establish sustainable timber harvest levels compatible with ecosystem conservation, then we can expect more federal intervention of the type we have recently seen. The loser in this game of bureaucratic chicken will be Minnesota’s remaining healthy older forests and the wildlife whose survival depends upon them.

Chandra Rosenthal / Staff PhotoChandra Rosenthal is the Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain Office located in Denver, Colorado.

Phone: 202-265-7337

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Silver Spring, MD 20910-4453

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