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Chippewa National Forest at 100: What next?

CASS LAKE, Minn. -- The end of the first 100 years also marks the start of the next 100 years, says Rob Harper, Chippewa National Forest supervisor. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the May 23, 1908, act of Congress establishing the Minnesota...

CASS LAKE, Minn. -- The end of the first 100 years also marks the start of the next 100 years, says Rob Harper, Chippewa National Forest supervisor.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the May 23, 1908, act of Congress establishing the Minnesota National Forest, the first east of the Mississippi River, which was renamed the Chippewa National Forest in 1928.

"These are lands that everybody has wanted, -- from early on with the Anishinabe, the Dakota, to the early settlers, timber companies, the state of Minnesota and ultimately the federal government," Harper said Thursday.

"It's over the last 100 years that this mission has unfolded on these very coveted lands," he said, as an open house was held at the Chippewa National Forest Supervisor's Headquarters Building, a rustic log-constructed facility.

Open houses are being held this week at ranger district offices in Deer River, Blackduck and Walker, plus Norway Beach, and a number of activities are planned throughout the summer to highlight the National Forest's 100th anniversary.

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U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., as well as the Leech Lake Tribal Council are slated to visit the Headquarters Building at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The boundary of the Chippewa National Forest includes about 1.6 million acres of which the U.S. Forest Service manages 666.622 acres over parts of Beltrami, Cass and Itasca counties and the Leech Lake Reservation.

The task now is to manage the forest for the next 100 years, Harper said.

"How will we help our forests adapt to a changing climate and an ever-increasing suite of invasive species?" Harper listed as one of three key issues on the horizon. "Emerald ash borers is right on the horizon, only one time zone to the east."

Also, "what role will the National Forest play in this unfolding debate about alternative energy?" he listed as a second issue. "That's particularly timely issue here in Minnesota."

He cited efforts by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature to have 25 percent of electric power generation come from renewable energy sources by 2025.

"How are we going to make the National Forest resonate and be relevant to an increasingly urban constituency that's often distant from the lands we manage?" Harper listed as the third issue.

"We're not going to wrestle with them alone," he adds. "We're going to do it, I hope, in partnership with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the counties, the state and the many other partners. These are issues that we face across all public ownerships in Minnesota."

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The quilt work of ownerships in Minnesota makes the state unique, he said, especially with the Chippewa National Forest that has a variety of ownerships within its boundaries. "It's like nowhere else I've ever been."

In Minnesota, about 2.8 million acres are managed by counties, another 2.8 million as national forests (Chippewa and Superior) and 5.3 million acres by the state through the Department of Natural Resources. Added to that are ownerships by industry, tribal and deeded private lands.

"It's an extraordinarily complex quilt work of ownerships, and each of these lands is administered under different authorities with different emphasis," Harper said. "Yet to successfully get to those over-arching issues -- climate change and invasive species, energy, making public lands relevant to the urban constituency -- we've got to tackle those all together."

The effort that led to the eventual national forest started in 1897 when the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs launched a campaign to create a park of forest reserve out of the rich pine lands that were slated to be sold off under the Nelson Act, which removed Ojibwe reservation lands from tribal ownership and allowed them to be sold to non-Indians or the federal government.

In 1902, Congress established a forest reserve from 225,000 acres of reservation land, under the Morris Act. It opened 25,000 acres of agricultural land to settlement, reserved 10 sections and areas of Indian land and allotments from sale or settlement, and provided for the sale of 200,000 acres pine timber with proceeds paid "to the benefit of the Indians."

The creation of the National Forest in 1908 allowed the purchase of Indian allotments to become forest lands, authorized the sale of pine timber and required a commission to estimate the value of timber reserved by both the 1902 and 1908 federal acts. It also set payments per acre and per thousand board feet of pine to the Indians. In 1923, $1.4 million was paid.

In 1934-35, the Chippewa National Forest was expanded to include another 1.3 million acres, and from 1934-41 about 400,000 acres were purchased from timber and land companies, mining interests and private individuals.

The U.S. Forest Service served a custodial role from the start of the Chippewa through World War II, Harper said. "Then came an era of rapid development, and even then the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960 was passed, which confirmed that timber and range are profoundly uses for the national forests, but also said so is recreation and wildlife, and reaffirmed a role for water."

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With the late 1960s and 1970s came "a whole suite of environmental legislation -- National Environmental Policy Act, Forest Management Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Wilderness Act, etc.," he said.

"They said there was another suite of environmental concerns we're going to consider and not only that, we're going to do more to be transparent in engaging the public in the type of decisions that we make," Harper said.

The latest is the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, which outlines fire suppression policies and wildfire fighting resources, primarily for the West.

The Chippewa National Forest today has 115 employees and an annual budget of $12.5 million, Harper said. It also makes payments to local counties though a variety of programs, such a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes. Fiscal year 2008 saw $1.1 million go to the counties, including $130,322 to Beltrami, $469,530 to Cass and $506,186 to Itasca.

And about 2.2 million people visit the Chippewa National Forest each year, either on day visits or camping, said Kay Getting, Chippewa National Forest public affairs team leader. She added that CNF ranks in the top 20 for annual visits of 155 national forests.

Thursday morning saw a host of visitors to the open house, Getting said, most of them former Forest Service employees. The oldest to visit was Zig Zazzadu, now in his 90s. "He told a lot of tall tales, and some of the old pictures hew said he lived through. He's the oldest Chippewa National Forest retiree."

Each office has a display of work they do, and there is a photo board of old-time photos as well as a memory board for people to post their stories.

For example, one display tells of ongoing research to find an elm that is resistant to Dutch elm disease. Getting said such a tree is being developed in Wisconsin which is being crossbred with a cold-hearty elm and tested at the Chippewa National Forest.

"If it works, we want to develop seed stock and test it further," she said, hoping eventually to produce a cold-hearty elm that won't get Dutch elm disease.

On display is a centennial quilt done by Forest Service employees. Getting said at least 16 employees put in about 300 volunteer hours to sew it. It includes scenes of the Chippewa National Forest using common materials -- yellow portions are with firefighting jackets, dark green from old Forest Service coats. The backing is old uniform shirts, she said.

"We hope to enter it into the State Fair," Getting said.

"It's a remarkable place, here at the headwaters," Harper said, noting the Chippewa National Forest has the Mississippi River flowing through it as well as having the Continental Divide which has waters flowing south to the Gulf of Mexico and north to Hudson Bay.

"In some ways, we're the headwaters of the continent, right in the middle of the continent," he said. "It's a forest that's well loved and has easy access by the public."

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The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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