An internal rift has opened within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over how much logging should be conducted in wildlife management areas, tracts of state land set aside for wildlife habitat and public hunting.

The disagreement pits top DNR officials who are trying to provide more wood for Minnesota mills against wildlife managers who say new quotas for logging on wildlife land could threaten some wildlife species that depend on bigger, older trees.

A new DNR plan calls for wildlife management areas to produce 12 percent of a new quota of 870,000 cords of wood logged each year off state land. The new quota was first announced by the DNR in March 2018 following a year of scientific modeling of state-owned forested land and with input from both environmental groups and industry officials.

But the DNR’s own wildlife experts now say that 12 percent is too much, and they say the agency is favoring the timber industry over wildlife and the people who frequent wildlife management areas to hunt, hike or bird watch.

Signs mark the entrance to DNR lands. (Minnesota DNR photo)
Signs mark the entrance to DNR lands. (Minnesota DNR photo)

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DNR officials ordered the wildlife managers not to talk to the media about the issue. But in a letter to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, signed by 28 wildlife managers and obtained by the News Tribune's parent company, Forum Communications, the concerns are clearly stated: While logging and young forests are good for some species at some times of year — deer, grouse and bear all favor young aspen, for example — the same species also need bigger, older trees in winter.

“Harvesting at this level of intensity jeopardizes long-term conservation of many wildlife species dependent on older forests for all or part of their life,’’ Tom Rusch, area wildlife manager for the DNR in Tower, Minn., wrote in the July 17 letter to Strommen.

The logging quota was pushed during the Gov. Mark Dayton administration to increase logging on state land over the next 10 years, in part to make up for a decline in logging on private land. The quota plan is moving ahead under Gov. Tim Walz, pushing DNR foresters to sell timber on wildlife management areas even if the logging is opposed by the local wildlife managers.

The boost to 870,000 cords annually for the next 10 years would be an 8.75 percent increase in the harvest target from the 800,000 cords cut on average over the past 15 years. Timber Industry officials had pushed for 1 million cords of state-land timber annually but DNR officials say their effort, called the Sustainable Timber Harvest Analysis (SHTA), showed that much logging is not sustainable.

The wildlife managers' letter to Strommen urged her to step back from the logging quota on wildlife lands and give local managers more say in what gets cut and when. The 870,000-cord state land quota may be met, “but we do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year plan is beneficial to wildlife,'' especially on wildlife management areas, the letter stated.

The wildlife experts raised concerns about specific regions, with Duluth managers saying the DNR plan risked cutting too many old trees on state land for some wildlife species that depend on them. Wildlife management areas “are the only public lands currently providing significant old forest habitat in our work area,’’ Duluth area wildlife managers wrote in the letter to the commissioner, saying they had proposed reserving selected stands of older forest for fisher and marten habitat and winter habitat for deer and moose.

If the DNR plan goes through, wildlife management areas in the Duluth region “will no longer support adequate habitat for many species."

In a July 26 response to the wildlife managers, Strommen praised their work and acknowledged their concerns but said the DNR analysis showed the extra logging can be done without harming wildlife.

“The SHTA used the best data we have and explored many alternatives,’’ Strommen wrote. “All of that analysis informed the conclusion that the DNR can offer 870,000 cords of timber from state-administered lands each year — and can do so in a way that is sustainable for both timber and non-timber natural resources and values.”

Strommen noted that, of the 5 million acres of state-managed forest in Minnesota, only about half is open to commercial logging, thus making it critical for wildlife lands to help provide part of the logging increase. The state has 1,440 wildlife management areas totaling 1.3 million acres across the state.

Barb Naramore, deputy DNR commissioner, on Monday said DNR leadership has respected and listened to the wildlife managers’ concerns but that there may be irreconcilable differences over how much logging is best for specific tracts of state land. She said the new computer model system of finding potential tracts represents change for wildlife managers.

“But change is difficult,” Naramore said, adding that the new system should be allowed to play out through the site-level timber sale process that will begin in September. That's when individual logging sales will be targeted in specific wildlife management areas and when local teams of wildlife managers, foresters and ecologists will all have input into potential sales, in what Naramore called a “robust, interdisciplinary process.”

But Naramore made it clear that wildlife managers may be overruled.

Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth-area chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and a retired DNR wildlife manager with 36 years on the job, said the local wildlife managers should have the final say in what gets cut on wildlife lands, “not someone in St. Paul with a computer.”

“For all of my time in DNR, we were only allowed to do timber sales in wildlife management areas if there was a wildlife management purpose. ... Now they’re going to do timber sales even if the wildlife manager says it will harm wildlife,” Staffon said. “This is a pretty blatant example of how we have a public resource being managed for a single special interest industry. As a hunter, $4 of my small-game license goes to wildlife management areas, and I want them managed for wildlife, not for the timber industry.”

Here are some of the other concerns raised by wildlife managers in northern Minnesota:

  • In the Bemidji area, wildlife managers raised red flags about the DNR plan to cut old oak trees — many of them 80 to 120 years old — to meet the new logging quota. The trees now open to cutting “are in prime condition that are producing large amounts of acorns for wildlife food annually, and can continue to do so for another 200 years’’ if they are not cut, wildlife managers wrote. “We see absolutely no wildlife management purpose, and instead a wildlife management detriment, to harvesting any more oaks on the WMAs in our work area.”

  • The DNR wildlife managers argue that their wildlife management areas are often the only big, old trees surrounded by cutover areas that see heavy logging on state and county forest lands nearby. “Less harvest on WMAs is required in order to allow WMAs to support habitat that is lacking on the surrounding landscape,’’ the International Falls area wildlife managers wrote.

  • Others said the proposal will harm efforts to armor native species against a warming climate. “This is an astonishing departure from managing to increase climate change resilience and managing for maximum production of wildlife’’ at the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area.

  • In the Crookston area, wildlife managers noted that the DNR plan calls for cutting 10 percent of the tamarack stands in the Polk Wildlife Management Area. “Tamarack stands are a unique forest type in this area of Minnesota and clearcutting all of these acres on this WMA is not appropriate,” the managers wrote.