Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Commentary: PEER questions DNR timber quotas; DNR responds

Freshly cut timber awaiting transportation. (Shutterstock)

Editor’s note: The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility produced a press release last month regarding DNR timber cutting. The DNR soon after responded to the release with one of its own. Here we offer first, the PEER release, then the DNR’s response.

First: The PEER Report

The state of Minnesota may forfeit millions of dollars of federal grants if it does not stop clear-cutting sensitive wildlife habitats, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily has withheld significant conservation funding for the Minnesota DNR over the latter’s imposition of “timber cord quotas” that impose logging targets regardless of the impacts on wildlife and habitats.

In 2021, the USFWS held up a two-year, $26.4 million grant for Minnesota’s wildlife management areas because the DNR had ignored adverse impacts on wildlife in executing its logging quotas. In addition, the DNR had placed decision-making on many conservation matters in the hands of foresters and not wildlife biologists.

A final decision on whether the USFWS continues sequestration of this funding is imminent.

“U.S. taxpayers should not be subsidizing Minnesota’s backward and destructive logging practices,” said Tim Whitehouse, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement attorney. “We are urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hold its ground and rescind any grant approvals that violate federal regulations.”

Earlier this month, the DNR announced that it had agreed to “action items” in a
meeting with USFWS Regional Director Charlie Wooley, and suggested that
this agreement resolved the matter of the withheld grant. Yet, these
action items do not meet the conditions laid out by the USFWS and, for
the most part, contain no identifiable actions but merely “reaffirm” the
DNR’s good intentions.

“Based upon reports that we have received, actual conditions on the ground
have not changed, and DNR-mandated ‘timber cord quotas’ still prevail,”
said Whitehouse, whose letter (in late December) urged the USFWS to
reject this sham agreement and to continue to withhold grant funds. “DNR
does not seem to grasp that the federal funding is limited to timber
operations designed to benefit wildlife, not to maximize timber

In addition to the loss of federal funding, the DNR may risk financial
consequences from the loss of its sustainable forest management
certification through the Forestry Stewardship Council, which is
currently conducting its annual audit of DNR forestry.

That certification makes DNR timber more marketable. PEER has asked the
council to incorporate the concerns raised by the USFWS into this latest
audit and any subsequent certification decision.

The DNR responds

Below, the statement issued by the DNR on Dec. 21 in response to the PEER release:

The Minnesota DNR was surprised and disappointed by the Public Employees
for Environmental Responsibility’s erroneous assertions. We feel the
need to correct inaccurate claims about federal grant reimbursement,
sustainable timber harvest and cord quotas, and the status of
Minnesota’s dual third-party forest certification.

Regarding federal grant reimbursement, the Minnesota DNR is in the second year of
a two-year, $26.4 million grant that is used to help pay for
habitat-management work on all its WMAs.

Historically, about 5% to 6% of the grant total has been spent on forest habitat work. Contrary to the PEER’s claims, the USFWS has not withheld funding from the Minnesota DNR
for management efforts on WMAs. The Minnesota DNR and USFWS mutually
agreed that the Minnesota DNR would not seek or receive reimbursement
for forest-habitat management under this grant until we could fully
understand and address grant conditions related to timber harvest on WMAs.

The Minnesota DNR continues to receive reimbursement for all other eligible habitat
activities, which we anticipate will constitute approximately 95% of the
work funded under this grant.

PEER fundamentally has misunderstood the 2018 sustainable timber harvest analysis and the way in which the Minnesota DNR uses the tool created from this analysis to inform its
ongoing forest-management activities. The analysis was a
landscape-level assessment to answer a specific question that had been
posed by then-Gov. (Mark) Dayton, which was whether state lands could
sustainably yield 1 million cords per year.

Based on the analysis, we determined that the answer to this question was
“no,” and further determined a sustainable harvest level of 870,000
cords per year in order to sustain multiple forest values including
wildlife, biodiversity, clean water, and recreation.

The analysis also generated a planning tool that the Minnesota DNR uses to
inform forest-management activities. The tool helps us identify where we
should be considering timber harvest in order to maintain the mix of
species and age classes necessary to sustain diverse and healthy forest
habitat. It is not a cord quota system, nor does it dictate where
harvest must occur.

We have a very well-established interdisciplinary process that relies on
local staff experts who evaluate forested areas and determine whether,
when, and how to harvest trees.

As part of the Forest Stewardship Council audit, we fully expected our
third-party auditors to consider perspectives from various stakeholders.
Contrary to PEER’s insinuation regarding certification status, the
FSC’s audit affirms that the Minnesota DNR’s forest-habitat management
is being conducted in a responsible and sustainable manner.

The Minnesota DNR is proud to have been dual third-party-certified since
2005, and we remain committed to certification and these audits, which
offer valuable feedback to help hold the DNR accountable.

One of the essential next steps we’ve shared with FSC and the USFWS is to
finish master plans for Minnesota’s largest WMAs and to develop a
system-wide planning framework for all other WMA lands.

The Minnesota DNR firmly believes these plans are vital to habitat management and public transparency, and are long overdue.

It is unfortunate that such plans have not been created to this point in
the Minnesota DNR’s 70-plus-year history of WMA management. We look
forward to completing plans that incorporate interdisciplinary thought,
public engagement, and a solid understanding of how active habitat
management, including timber harvest, is used to achieve wildlife
habitat goals.

We will continue to work closely with all our partners in conservation on
shared goals to improve habitat for wildlife and wildlife-based
recreation for the benefit of Minnesotans.

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