The Forest for the Trees

The Forest for the Trees

by Jeff Forester


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Author Jeff Forester describes how humans have occupied and managed the northern borderlands of Minnesota, from tribal burning to pioneer and industrial logging to evolving conceptions of wilderness and restoration forestry. On the surface a story of Minnesota's borderlands, The Forest for the Trees more broadly explores the nation's history of resource extraction and wilderness preservation, casting forward to consider what today's actions may mean for the future of America's forests. From early settlers and industrialists seeking the pine forests' wealth to modern visitors valuing the tranquility of protected wilderness, the region known today as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has offered assorted treasures to each generation. By focusing on the ecological history of the BWCAW's Winton watershed, Forester shows how the global story of logging, forestry, conservation, and resource management unfolded in the northern woods of Minnesota. The result is a telling exploration of human attitudes toward wilderness: the grasp after a forest's resources, the battles between logging and tourist interests, and decades of conservation efforts that have left northern Minnesota denuded of white pine and threatened with potentially devastating fire. The result of a decade of research, The Forest for the Trees chronicles six phases of human interaction with the BWCAW: tribal, burning the land for cultivation; pioneering, harvesting lumber on a small scale; industrial, accelerating the cut and consequently increasing the fire danger; conservation, reacting to both widespread fires and unsustainable harvest levels; wilderness, recognizing important values in woodlands beyond timber; and finally restoration, using prescribed burns and other techniques to return the forest to its "natural" state. Whether promoted or excluded, one constant through these phases is fire. The Forest for the Trees explores how tribal people burned the land to encourage agriculture, how conservationists and others later fought fire in the woods by completely suppressing it, and finally how scientific understanding brought the debate full circle, as recent controlled burns in the BWCAW seek to lessen significant fuel loads that could produce fires of unprecedented magnitude.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780873514804
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Publication date: 05/11/2004
Pages: 215
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.22(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Jeff Forester is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Whole Earth Review, Rolling Stone, Oregon Quarterly, and Timberline. He is executive director of a nonprofit organization and an instructor at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Read an Excerpt

The Forest for the Trees
How Humans Shaped the North Woods

Copyright © 2004

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-480-4

Chapter One Rock, Water, Tree

I want to tell what the forests were like I will have to speak in a forgotten language W. S. MERWIN, "Witness"

THIS IS THE STORY of the changing of a landscape, the Arrowhead of Minnesota, and how that landscape changed us. It is difficult to study the ecological history of the BWCAW without looking at the human history there, for the two are symbiotic. Karl Marx recognized this in Grundrisse, writing, "As societies try to remake nature, they remake themselves, without ever really escaping natural influences." The fortunes of one, the land, are conjoined with the fortunes of the other, the people. The border region is rock, water, and tree. Two dynamic forces, fire and ice, dominate its history and define human interaction with this place.

The bedrock is ancient. Some of the oldest exposed surface outcroppings on the planet, more than 3.5 billion years old, bulge through the earth's crust here. While the rock is ancient, the land and wildlife are almost infantile. The last glacier retreated from the Arrowhead just twelve thousand years ago, and its passing is still fresh on the land. The ice drove southwest from Hudson Bay in slabs two miles thick, gouging and crushing the land like a bulldozer. It scoured northern Minnesota, plowing up soil and soft rocks, roiling the turbid debris south to Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and depositing the rubble in steep terminal moraines. The bony spine of North America lay vivisected in its wake.

The ice retreated to the Arctic, but the melt remained, creating the border lakes, thirty thousand of them, resting in clean bedrock basins. The action of the ice shows clearly on aerial photographs: the border lakes lie vaguely northeast and spread southwest from Hudson Bay across the Canadian border and into northern Minnesota. Lake Superior is the largest of these, its rugged north shore the remnant of ancient mountains. The Laurentian Divide extends over the north side of the Great Lakes, follows Superior's north shore down to Duluth, and then strikes off vaguely northwest to the Canadian Rockies. North of this continental divide the surface waters flow up the maze of lakes and rivers in the border country, through Canadian boreal forests, and across tundra where even the stalwart black spruce cannot grow, to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. To the south the waters flow either to the Great Lakes or down the Mississippi and so to the Atlantic.

The Ojibwe call the divide In-ni-wis-ti-go-ma, translating to "here the waters run two ways," and they named the Arrowhead region Mesaba, meaning "grandmother of them all" or "sleeping giant." North of the Laurentian, the mean yearly temperature is just thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit. Frost often comes in August, and snow usually covers the ground from November through late April, with yearly accumulations averaging sixty inches. Violent thunderstorms are common the rest of the year. The lowest recorded temperature was minus sixty degrees on February 2, 1996, while the record high occurred on July 6, 1936, when temperatures blazed to 114, a fluctuation of 174 degrees.

The weight of the ice compressed the Canadian Shield hundreds of feet. Since then, as the elastic rock expands, Superior, Wisconsin, rises as much as one-half inch each year. Glaciers scattered house-sized erratics across the northland. Rocks embedded in the ice cut parallel striations in the bedrock as they passed, creating scars that in some places still appear fresh. Sand or clay mixed in the ice polished other rocks smooth. Glaciers left the border lakes region without compromise: it is either water or rock. The forests are almost accidental, clinging to narrow belts of rubble, sand, clay, or loam where meager soils have accumulated in shallow basins. The last virgin tracts of eastern white pine in the world grew stubbornly on this marginalized scree.

Remnant white pine communities survived the last ice age on transient islands in the Atlantic, rock piles exposed as sea levels fell while ice accumulated on land. When the ice melted and the water rose, white pine spread to the mainland and took hold. Postglacial fossil records show white pine in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia 12,700 years ago. From there the tree spread northward. The species colonized Virginia and western Maryland and then moved north and west along the high, cool Appalachians, reaching northern New England ten thousand years ago. In the next thousand years white pine spread on the north and south shores of the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Island chain, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior, arriving in Minnesota seven thousand years ago. For a time white pine grew much farther north than it does today, but the "little ice age" of 1550 to 1880 decreased its northern range. It was still spreading slowly westward in the 1880s, when Robert Whiteside and his brothers arrived and began the cut. Pinus strobus, eastern white pine, towers above other trees in the forest, rising to more than 225 feet. These trees can live half a millennium, reaching diameters of more than six feet, their trunks enormous, living cathedral pilasters, their crowns the spires. The needles grow in follicles of five up to five inches long, their pale, silvery-green color giving a moonlit appearance even in daylight. The tree's grain is clean, the wood soft and easily worked. Yet it is tenacious: white pine lumber resists creeping moistures, the bite of winter, the warping heat of summer. And pine logs are more buoyant than other species, easily floating down waterways to sawmills. For these reasons white pine was the most valuable species to pioneer loggers. Happily for them, white pine once dominated the forests from Newfoundland and eastern Manitoba southward to the Appalachians and west to Iowa.

Unlike in New England, the forest in northern Minnesota was not an unbroken sea of pine. The topography of rock, water, and glacial soils and the effects of fire worked to create a mosaic of forest on the Arrowhead. It is a complex area ecologically, an ecotone, a transition zone between the hardwood and white pine forests of the Great Lakes and the boreal forests, aspen and spruce, of the subarctic. The dark and solemn cathedral-like lines of near-black pine trunks slowly gave way in places to mixed stands of strikingly white paper birch (Betula Alleghaniensis), blue-green spruce (Picea glavca), and silver and sweet-smelling white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). In the late fall, October or early November, the tamaracks flamed imperial gold and shed their needles. Nevertheless, large, old white pine trees dominated the Winton watershed at the time Robert Whiteside arrived.

In 1895, after years of logging, cruisers estimated that the land north of Duluth still contained more than 40 billion board feet of standing pine. Between 1880 and 1920, loggers cut about 2.5 billion board feet of white pine off the Winton watershed. The few small pockets of original white pine forest in the BWCAW that survived until wilderness designation protected them from logging are no larger than ten acres. Most of the trees are younger than two hundred and fifty years, though the oldest stand, a group of red and white pine on Three Mile Island in Sea Gull Lake, began growing around 1595. Many of these blew down in the July 4, 1999, storm, and in 2002 the USFS burned the island. Still, some fifteen-hundred-year-old cedar trees and a handful of the old red and white pine survived.

Lumbermen spared the few remnant pine stands for a variety of practical reasons. Some were small, isolated stands surrounded by acres of lower-value trees. Some grew on windy ridges which cautious fellers saved for still days that never came. Some grew at the bottom of steep gullies. Sometimes a company could not finish clearing an area before the weather turned warm and broke up the ice roads, and, if the stands were small in acreage, the company never returned for them. The loggers also left the diseased and the fire-damaged, but most of the remnant old growth trees that live today were simply too small to bother with a hundred years ago.

There is one such stand off the Echo Trail, not far from Ely, along the shores of Hegeman Lake. The USFS estimates that the trees began growing after a fire in 1835 and were a mere sixty years old when Robert Whiteside began his operations. The pines are not great in girth, more like skinny teenagers, but they are much taller than other northland trees. The lower branches have withered from lack of sun, leaving the trunks straight and clean. Far above, 150 to 200 feet, the crowns wave gently in the wind, a silvery-green canopy. Underneath, at relatively even spacing, an understory of birch, balsam fir, spruce, red maple, basswood, and red oak grows in the dappled light. The forest floor is clear and open, almost manicured, like a park. In the summer the temperature is cooler under the old pine trees, and in the winter, when the wind roars far overhead in the crowns, it is still and warmer below. Black trunks, straight, clean pillars, rise along each side of the trail. The stand is quiet, inspiring the awe intrinsic to great age or beauty and compelling one to speak in whispers, as if in a church.

These cathedral groves are rare in northern Minnesota. Short-lived transitional species-balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), and quaking aspen (Populus tremoloides)-dominate the forest that grew up after loggers cut out the pine. After ninety years of USFS fire suppression programs, woody debris litters the forest floor. Even in old-growth groves like Hegeman Lake, the flammable balsam fir and spruce understory can quickly carry fire into the treetops, destroying the stand.

Many people think of a forest fire as a wild conflagration destroying everything in its path, what is known as catastrophic fire. This is the fire that makes the evening news, the fire that we read about in the paper, the fire that most urbanites, now living in a fireless world, know. Catastrophic fires spread through the tops, or crowns, of trees, the canopy, and are common to younger, more flammable stands of jack or red pine or transitional aspen, where the crowns and lower branches are closer to the ground and ignite more easily. When a fire moved from the ground to the crown, the loggers called, "She's covering," and got out of the way, for once a fire reaches the treetops, wind drives it and it moves more quickly. These are also known as stand-replacing fires because instead of culling undergrowth and dead and downed timber, canopy fires typically kill all forest cover. Usually a species other than the original stand dominates after such a fire. But in the border lakes, catastrophic fires were not historically predominant.

Fire was always an integral and natural part of the white pine forest, determining the species, age, and successional stages of the forest as well as the wildlife. Virtually all of the BWCAW has burned from one to three times in the last four hundred years. The white pine forests cleared by logging might well have been even older, but the record was lost when the trees were removed. The catastrophic fires that followed logging operations in the early days and threaten the area today are not natural. Most natural fires in old-growth forests, especially white pine stands, do not cover.

The relative humidity is higher in older stands, the wind less intense, the fuel sparse. Thus fires typically smolder along the ground, clearing out downed wood, shrub, spruce, balsam, and poplar seedlings-the boreal forest component and fuels that dominate today. These low, creeping fires occurred, on an average acre, about once every thirty-six years, removing fuel that could cause canopy-killing fires, thereby perpetuating older stands. The old white pine, their corky bark sixteen inches thick and branches over one hundred feet off the ground, survived most of these fires undamaged save for trunk scars. White pine seedlings do well in the shady, cleared areas under their parents once fire removes the boreal competition. Further, fire prepares a site for the seeds to germinate, as they will only take root and survive if they grow directly on the soil, not in a leafy duff.

Periodically, when weather conditions were perfect-relative humidity below 30 percent and winds exceeding fifteen to twenty miles per hour-some natural fires did cover, destroying portions of white pine stands. These natural crown fires tended to visit the stands once every three hundred years, with older stands surviving in areas that were more protected from fire by wetlands, lakes, or other natural barriers. Because the prevailing winds in northern Minnesota are from west to east, large bodies of north-to-south-oriented waters tended to shield stands from large fires. Jackfish and Pipestone Bays on Basswood Lake, along with the Horse Lake chain, Birch Lake, and the Stony River are all such natural barriers, possibly explaining why dense pine forests survived in these areas. Additionally, much of the pine in the border lakes grew on isolated, protected islands, of which there are many thousands.

White settlement fundamentally altered the fire regime and the landscape of the BWCAW, leading more forest fires to cover today than in the past. Logging and subsequent fires established aspen forests across most of the northland. Fire-dependent species like jack pine failed to regenerate; as they toppled, they were replaced by hardwoods. Fire suppression efforts and pulpwood logging not only froze the flora at this phase but also had a profound impact on the fauna of the area.

The animals that live in the forests today differ from those that did previously: eagles, osprey, caribou, elk, moose, cougar, Canada lynx, wolverine, and pileated woodpecker-species requiring late-stage forests-are now either completely extirpated or rare. Caribou and elk grazed the mosses and grasses in the open areas below the pine canopy. Moose were more common than deer before logging. Wolves, cougars, Canada lynx, and wolverines reigned at the top of the food chain, and black and carnivorous brown bear roamed Minnesota. Now there are no caribou, elk, brown bear, or wolverine. The fur trade, which wound down in the 1850s, almost wiped out many of the furbearers like otter, beaver, fisher, and pine martin, and habitat destruction by logging beginning in the 1880s stalled their recovery.

White-tailed deer were once rather rare in the north country. But since the creation of Superior National Forest in 1909, foresters, under pressure from hunting organizations, have been actively managing habitat for the species, and today deer herds have reached unprecedented numbers. Before 1920 there were about 480 caribou, 480 moose, 240 white-tailed deer, and 120 elk in the 344-square-mile Voyageurs National Park, twenty miles west of the BWCAW. By 1981 the caribou and elk were completely exterminated and the moose population had withered to just twenty-four animals due to hunting pressure and loss of habitat from logging. The deer population, on the other hand, had exploded to 1,200, more than the combined number of elk, caribou, and moose of prelogging days.

Recent efforts to reintroduce elk and caribou to the northland have failed, but wolf numbers are rising due to federal protection and the unnaturally high white-tailed deer populations. Moose populations remain low and unstable due in part to a brain worm that deer carry unharmed but that is fatal to moose. Canada lynx are beginning to return, and cougars have been re-established, but wolverines are completely extirpated. There is limited trapping of fishers and beaver again, but pine martin are still scarce. Today logging maintains habitats for deer and ruffed grouse, another previously rare species, over most of northern Minnesota save Voyageurs National Park and the BWCAW. Without logging, the populations of grouse and deer would decline but the numbers of moose, lynx, caribou, elk, pine martin, bear, wolverine, eagle, osprey, hawk, and a host of other old-growth-dependent species would increase.


Excerpted from The Forest for the Trees by JEFF FORESTER
Copyright © 2004 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsxi
1Rock, Water, Tree11
2Pioneer Lumbering25
3The Cut Increases41
4Lumberjack Life67
5Labor in the Northland87
6Conservation Gains Traction101
7Foresters Under Fire123
8Defining a Wilderness141
9The Big Blow Down155

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Like 'Silent Spring' Forest for the Trees was a watershed for me, changing how I thought about the natural world. My old ideas about wilderness, and what was natural will never be the s