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The North Shore's Dying Trees

Dying Trees
Wayne Russ, wildlife ecologist for the Tofte and Gunflint Ranger Districts, is one of the founders of the North Shore Forest Collaborative.

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.



2 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Deborah Morse-Kahn
Jul 19, 2011 9:53am [ 1 ]

Thank you for an excellent article. However, it starts with, and is illustrated by, inaccurate information. The birch trees along the north shore and inland along the Sawtooth Range and points north were greatly damaged by the ice storm of the winter of 2009, and never recovered. We have watched this spring as the trees, uniformly, have broken off at the exact same height, forming a less ghostly appearance but still sad to see. In time, the ice-burnt trunks will disintegrate and return to the boreal forest floor.

Shawn Perich
Jul 19, 2011 4:35pm [ 2 ]

Actually, the birch trees along the North Shore have been dying for decades. Most of the birch originated in the wake of big fires in the post white pine logging era. Birch, like aspen, is one of the first trees to sprout after a forest disturbance, especially a major fire. They are also relatively short-lived, which means they are now at the end of their lifespan.

Birch are also affected by pests such as the birch borer and by development, such as soil compaction from road and home building. The damage from the ice storm is very visible, but is just one of many factors affecting the birch forest. And, when birch dies out, as has occurred in places along Hwy 61, they are often replaced by grass and brush.

Using fire or mechanized disturbance (logging) to restore birch forests or move them to another stage of succession hasn't been tried much along the North Shore, such as in state parks, though some have advocated doing so over the years. The current effort of the collaborative may help us learn ways to to reforest areas where the birch is dying off.

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