East Bethel residents are not happy with a state agency’s plan to cut down between 65 and 100 acres of trees in a natural preserve.
These residents and other government officials that have put years of effort into preserving the 570-acre Sandhill Crane Natural Area (SCNA) voiced their opposition May 1 during a public information meeting at East Bethel City Hall.
“What you see is no cars, no planes, no trains, no buses. There’s eagles, there’s osprey, there’s no chainsaws. It’s a very nice area and I think you should leave it that way,” said East Bethel resident Frank Howe.
Some of the SCNA has land that the state of Minnesota got from the federal government when it became a state in 1858. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must generate revenue from the property to help fund schools.
Putting 50 acres of timber up for auction in September and another 15 to 50 acres several years from now would do this job. Residents and the other government groups that own property in the SCNA question whether getting tens of thousands of dollars is worth it if the result is a barren landscape.
East Bethel officials have seen the results of a clear cut on state trust property in Oak Grove, according to Nate Ayshford, East Bethel public works director.
“I have children, I have grandchildren and I want them to be able to see that because I was lucky enough to be able to see that in my lifetime,” said East Bethel resident Vici Nass.
Jerry Patrin’s family has hunted on adjacent property since the early 1950s and said the government has tried to buy the land before. He is concerned that once neighboring property is deforested, there will be another attempt to buy.
“We don’t plan on ever developing that,” Patrin said. “We use it for the family and hunting and recreation.”
Patrin, who lives in Marine on St. Croix has lost trees to wind storms and diseases on hunting property the family owns in Pine County, but they have just removed a select number of trees and planted new ones in their place. He and others question why the DNR cannot remove the trees infected with oak wilt and what the rush is considering oak wilt has been in the area for years.
Greg Russell, regional manager with the DNR forestry division, said it has a responsibility to fund the school trust, but there is also an oak wilt problem to deal with.
Most of the remaining 2.5 million acres of school trust land are in northeastern Minnesota. The Minnesota Legislature has been critical of the DNR Forestry Division for not bringing in enough revenue for schools. There was a past proposal in the Legislature to take management of the trust land away from the DNR, but it never passed.
According to DNR reports, gross revenue from school trust lands since 2000 have ranged from a low of $12 million in fiscal year 2000 to a high of $35.3 million in fiscal year 2008. Some revenue comes from mining leases, but a sizable percentage comes from timber auctions. Those percentages were 39.3 percent in fiscal year 2010 and 27.9 percent in fiscal year 2011, for example.
“We’ve forgone income off of this land by letting these oak wilt pockets get started and progress to the point where we feel now we have to clear cut,” Russell said.
The forestry division is targeting a total of 50 acres on two parcels. One is southwest of Mid Lake and the other northeast of the Beaverbrook Gun Club on the west side of Deer Lake. Another 15 to 50 acres of timber could be auctioned off several years later, but the DNR and Anoka County are in a land ownership dispute over 35 acres, according to Bob Quady, the DNR forester in charge of this project.
It originally planned to go to auction in June, but Russell told ABC Newspapers Monday that the auction will be delayed to September to “allow time for all concerned parties to review this project without so much emotion, although there will always be emotional ties to this place.” The forestry division will take more forest health measurements throughout the summer.
Chris Lord, district manager of the Anoka Conservation District, calculated that less than 10 percent of the forest has oak wilt from the images he has seen and the spread has been very slow over the past 10 years. Lord said that oak wilt has been around for years and should be allowed to progress naturally.
Even if some oak wilt tree removal was justifiable, Lord and Anoka County Parks administration believe less intrusive measures such as using a vibratory plow to cut the roots of a diseased tree or the selective removal of trees should be contemplated rather than cutting down all trees.
Russell said the DNR Forestry Division’s forest health expert who did his PhD on oak wilt said clear cutting and then replacing the old trees with a new diverse tree stand is the best long-term solution. The infection would still stay in the roots if they are cut and spread to other trees that naturally sprout up in the area.
Dick Bartz is concerned that more ATVs and motorcycles will come through if this area is clear cut. He and the neighbors have already seen these people coming through the area, which is not allowed.
Mark Bouljon lives near Coon Lake and not by the Sandhill Crane area, but echoed sentiments of many residents that they moved to East Bethel to get away from the bustle of the city and preservation of natural resources is their highest priority.
Different visions within the government
Besides the school trust land, Anoka County, the city of East Bethel and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency own property within the Sandhill Crane Natural Area. The MPCA owns the closed landfill site northwest of Neds Lake.
All oppose the clear cut because it goes against the vision of preservation that they all have for this area. Not everyone in the DNR agrees with the forestry division’s plan.
Hannah Texler, who has 27 years of experience in the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources Division, said a DNR interdivisional group has been evaluating revenue potential of all school trust properties and asked the forestry division to hold off on the timber auction until alternatives could be explored. One alternative Texler mentioned is the establishment of a DNR wildlife management area, which would include a couple of private properties and this school trust land.
“It might not surprise you that there is diversity within the DNR,” Texler said. “We sometimes have different ideas for how to do things.”
Texler has extensively studied the nearby Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve that the University of Minnesota owns, but would like to do more research on the oak forest in the Sandhill Crane Natural Area.
Texler knows there is a red-shouldered hawk nest not too far away from the Sandhill Crane area and this species requires a large forest canopy. The Blanding’s turtle, which Minnesota classifies as a threatened species, has been spotted by residents and government officials.
Quady said the forestry division posted a notice on its website over a year ago that this timber sale would be taking place, and the forestry division has been communicating with the other DNR divisions for over a year. He first notified the SCNA interagency committee last August, and it met last October and March 28. He left it up to the county and city to notify the public.
“I understand the emotion, but we aren’t looking at the emotion. We’re looking at the science of doing it,” Quady said.
The plan is to harvest the current pin oak and replace it with bur oak, which is less susceptible to oak wilt, and white pine, which will increase tree stand diversity to and has a higher economic return, according to Quady.
Quady estimated that the DNR could get $600 to $750 an acre for the healthy parts of the tree stand. Whatever is left behind could be sold for scrap firewood, but the five to 10 acres already infected with oak wilt cannot be sold.
The state, county and city collaborated to create the Sandhill Crane Natural Area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The idea came to the mayor of East Bethel and DNR commissioner during a waterfowl hunting trip by Deer Lake in the early 1990s, according to Jeff Perry, Anoka County Parks Operations Manager.
The Sandhill Crane Natural Area today has approximately 310 acres of high quality wetland, 200 acres of forest and 60 acres of native prairie, Perry said. In subsequent years, conservation easements have been set up on some adjacent properties in which the previous owners still maintain ownership, but development is restricted.
A memorandum of understanding was signed in 1999. The MPCA joined the group in 2001 when a management plan was completed.
Anoka County Parks Director John VonDeLinde, who has worked for the county since 1994, said section 16 of the MOU illustrates that the DNR saw minimal income potential in the Sandhill Crane Natural Area, so no clear cutting was contemplated.
However, the next sentence in the MOU says the DNR “is subject to the state’s trust responsibilities and the state’s ongoing evaluation of those responsibilities.”
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]