KANDIYOHI (AP) — You want big trees? William and Ute Reid have big trees. Lots of them.
How about state record contenders for rock and red elm? Not to mention bitternut hickory. Did we mention peachleaf willow?
Those giants and more are scattered across 150 acres of woods on the Reids’ property southeast of Willmar in Kandiyohi County. But get this: That isn’t the most amazing thing about it.
Their woods, abutting a chain of shallow lakes, is part of the only known old-growth forest with all three native species of Upper Midwestern elms — red and rock, as well as the American elm.
And despite the Dutch elm disease that has ravaged the area for the past four decades, the mature elms on the Reids’ property are invariably healthy. New elms, meanwhile, seem to be sprouting up everywhere.
“It takes your breath away,” said Mark Stennes, a plant pathologist specializing in Dutch elm disease. “There’ve been some losses, but it’s an extraordinarily unusual phenomenon that those trees aren’t gone. It’s almost like it’s a minor irritant for them. You lose one here, then there, but by bark beetles or root grafts, it (Dutch elm disease) should spread like wildfire through dry grass. And it doesn’t.”
“There’s some sort of ecosystem-level resistance,” speculated Lee Frelich, a forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota who learned of the tract only seven or eight years ago.
William Reid, a retired medical pathologist, bought some of the property in the winter of 1967, six months after arriving in Willmar, and he has added smaller parcels over time, giving him seven miles of tree-lined lakeshore. In all, there are 1,000 acres of woods owned by various people.
“I couldn’t believe there was a place like this,” said Reid, who grew up in Michigan and says he’s always been captivated by trees. “I’ve been here 45 years, and it pretty much looked then just like it does now.”
That such trees, many of them hundreds of years old, are still there is a testament to the stewardship of the Reids and other landowners. But they almost missed the chance to show it.
An elevated spot just north of the area was proposed 150 years ago as Minnesota’s future capital. Prospective streets were laid out, with the idea the state would be governed from a central location.
But the plan eventually died.
In time, the land away from the lakes was plowed and planted with corn and soybeans, and the land nearest them was left alone. That loamy soil is particularly well suited to tree growth.
“The trees are tall here because the soil is rich,” said Frelich, adding that at least four tree species on the Reid property could be state record holders if measured. “And they have as much water as they need.”
Reid said he’s never even run across evidence the land has burned.
“As far as I can tell, none of the trees has any fire scars,” Reid said, walking through the cool, shaded understory.
Indeed, most of the property appears undisturbed. Large trees tower over younger ones. Deadfall, rotting and covered with moss, is scattered about.
Lots of younger trees pop through the wood nettles and other native plants carpeting the forest floor in green.
During a recent tour, Reid and Frelich were in their element, in this presumed last remnant of an elm forest that developed thousands of years ago and eventually covered much of the region.
“This is what a virgin forest looks like,” said Reid, spreading his right hand out before him. “See how open it is. You can walk right through it....You get serenity in here.”
Occasionally, they came across a dead elm, a victim of Dutch elm disease. But near them, the leaves almost touching and the roots surely interconnected, were other elms, perfectly healthy.
“Here, one tree in the middle of the forest can get it, and it won’t spread,” Frelich said. “It should have gone right to the other one. That’s what it does everywhere else in the world.”
Stennes and Frelich said they don’t know why the disease doesn’t spread there as it typically does. Both say it’s inconceivable the trees have a genetic resistance to it.
“That three susceptible species would all be resistant on one wild site in Minnesota and nowhere else in the world or country — the odds are impossibly long,” said Stennes, who works for S&S Tree Specialists of South St. Paul.
Frelich said it’s possible the elm bark beetles and fungi that spread the disease must compete with other beetles and fungi, reducing their effectiveness.
Or it may be a testament to the innate health of old-growth forests.
“For some reason, diseases don’t like virgin forests,” Frelich said.
Like Frelich and Stennes, Reid wants to know why. That’s one reason he has been trying to persuade scientists to look at the property.
He tried to interest Stennes years ago but to no avail.
“I was busy making a living,” Stennes said. “He finally got a hold of Lee Frelich. He was just the right guy.”
Frelich, who heads the university’s Center for Forest Ecology, said that when Reid described the property, he was curious but skeptical.
“He said he had a forest dominated by rock elm,” Frelich said. “As a scientist, I thought there was no such thing. So, I thought, ‘OK, I better go and see if it’s true.’ Well, it was better than I thought....It is such an unexpected thing to have in that region.”
For many Americans, elms — often called the perfect urban shade tree — are particularly endearing.
Ideal boulevard trees in cities and towns, they can withstand tough conditions, and their majestic arches, allowing just the right amount of sunlight to filter through the canopy, provide a cathedral-like ceiling above city streets.
That image, however, is only a memory in most communities. As Dutch elm disease has spread across the United States, it has killed tens of millions of elm trees.
Frelich and Stennes say the Kandiyohi woods offer abundant opportunities to study what’s enabling those elms to thrive.