Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Gridlock in the forest

Stalled Chippewa National Forest

management frustrates many

By Shawn Perich

Field Editor

Grand Rapids, Minn. Rick Horton wonders how many birds the next
generation of grouse hunters will flush from coverts in the
670,000-acre Chippewa National Forest. As the Minnesota biologist
for the Ruffed Grouse Society, he worries that timber harvest
reductions and changing management priorities for the U.S. Forest
Service will benefit neither grouse nor grouse hunters.

“It’s a grand experiment,” Horton says.

North-central Minnesota, including “the Chip,” is considered one
of the best places to hunt grouse in the nation, because the
forests contain an abundance of aspen, a native tree that
proliferates in the wake of disturbances such as fire or logging.
Dense thickets of aspen saplings are excellent habitat for grouse.
Since aspen is a primary source of fiber for Minnesota’s forest
products industry, logging ensures a continuous supply of young
aspen habitat.

But on the Chip, logging has come to a virtual standstill.

“We’ve gone through a downturn in our timber program,” says Don
Rees, USFS natural resources team leader. “We’re cutting timber,
but not as much as we once were.”

Rees says so far this year, just 15,000 cords of wood have been
sold on the Chippewa. Timber industry representatives dispute even
this amount. Jack Rajala, a local lumberman who once depended upon
wood from the national forest to supply his mills in Big Fork and
Deer River, says sales for the year are closer to 1,000 cords and
that the other 14,000 cords are carryover from sales last year.

“We’re thinking they’re just going to cancel out the timber
program on the forest,” Rajala says.

Rees insists this is not the case, and says the Forest Service
is working diligently to restore timber sales. The agency has been
set back by staff and funding cuts, changing ecological priorities,
natural disasters such as 1999’s massive blowdown and annual
Western wild fires, and delays in developing a new forest plan to
succeed the plan that expired in 1996. In addition, the agency is
moving away from traditional aspen harvests, called clear-cuts,
toward logging methods that leave standing trees and encourage the
regrowth of other species. Rees says the new silvicultural
practices are intended to protect flora and fauna that the Forest
Service considers sensitive species.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place trying to meet the
fiber needs of the timber industry and our need to maintain
sensitive species,” Rees says.

Sensitive species are not necessarily endangered or threatened
with extirpation, but are species that exist on the national forest
and have specific habitat requirements. The Forest Service is
required to analyze all proposed logging sites for species such as
goshawks, goblin ferns, and black-backed woodpeckers, and mitigate
any negative effects from logging. Such mitigation may take
precedence over the positive benefits of disturbance for other
species, such as grouse or deer.

Chippewa National Forest supervisor Logan Lee says the USFS
struggles to balance habitat management that benefits deer and
grouse with the needs of sensitive species.

The Forest Service is responsible only for vegetation management
fish and wildlife are managed by states and the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service but its decisions about growing and harvesting
trees determine the available habitat for forest-dwelling
species.

For decades, game species such as grouse and deer have been
emphasized in forest management plans, in part because they
benefited from logging disturbance and the regrowth of aspen. That
emphasis came at the expense of other species, say forest
management critics. Ratcheting back timber and game programs is a
way to attempt to balance competing interests. But, at least in the
short term, the ratchet has been cranked hard.

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