Anyone driving on Highway 61 can’t help but notice the struggling forest along the North Shore. The skeletal bones of dead or dying paper birch cleave the sky while young poplars and balsam fir crowd in amongst them.
Historically, the forest along the North Shore was a healthy ecosystem with a variety of different tree species, said Wayne Russ, wildlife ecologist for the east zone of the Superior National Forest. White pine stands and individuals had a strong presence in the landscape, he said. It looked somewhat like the Encampment area between the two tunnels on Highway 61. Other trees occurred in the three-mile-wide strip of land along this 140-mile stretch of shoreline, too, he said, including white cedar, yellow birch, tamarack, jackpine, basswood, elm and red oak.
That changed with the arrival of settlers and a few big forest fires, he said. Paper birch grew up in the burnt-over areas. They’re not a long-lived species, he said, and the decline we see today is part of a natural process.
All things being equal, we’d be seeing the beginnings of a new forest ecosystem on the landscape today—young white pine and white cedar, for example, would be springing up.
But the environment on the North Shore has changed, Russ said. “It’s not regenerating like it should, largely because of whitetail deer.” Deer feast on young white pine and white cedars in the winter, and there are few, if any, unprotected young trees in this zone today, he said. Diseases like blister rust and insects have taken their toll on these native species as well, he added.
But this could change, thanks to the efforts of the North Shore Forest Collaborative, a new organization that is developing plans to restore a healthy and diverse forest along the North Shore.
The North Shore has unique land ownership patterns, he said, with multiple stakes holders, including Cook and Lake Counties, the DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Grand Portage Band, as well as many private landowners and cities and towns.
Russ and Becky Bartol, environmental coordinator in the Tofte and Gunflint Ranger Districts, began working with District Rangers Dennis Nietzke and John Wytanis to talk to stakeholders in Lake and Cook Counties about working together on a long-term project to restore the forest along the North Shore from Knife River to the border.
The idea has caught on. Today, the North Shore Forest Collaborative Board, which has met three times, includes both District rangers; representatives from Lake and Cook counties; federal, state and local agencies; Wolf Ridge; Sugarloaf Cove; the Nature Conservancy; the Minnesota Land Trust, and private landowners.
The collaborative now has a draft of stated goals and objectives and is in the process of securing a grant to hire a coordinator. It will take years to complete the project, but the first steps have been taken, Russ said.
“Our emphasis is going to be white pine,” Russ said. “It was a very common species between Beaver Bay and south to Knife River before white settlement. We want to do enough to affect the forest in patches."
In the Encampment Forest, for example, white pines have been planted in a 1,700-acre tract protected with fencing to keep out deer. It’s been quite successful, he said.
At this point, the collaborative is still gathering data. “We will be looking at different projects to see what we want to work on in the future,” Bartol said.
Want to know more? Call the Bartol at 663-8060 or 387-1750.