By MONICA LUNDQUIST
BACKUS — Cass County Land Department’s goal for managing 255,000 acres of land within the county focuses on creating a future landscape that replicates the natural effect that would follow rotating wildfires over different years.
That county administered land includes 178,000 acres of upland timber, from which Cass sells an average of 4,000 acres of timber to loggers each year or trees from about 2 percent of the available acreage, according to Land Commissioner Joshua Stevenson.
The balance of county-managed land includes marshes, grassland prairie, ponds, streams, recreational and logging trails and gravel deposits.
Cass Land Department tries to manage forest for age rotation as well as variety of species. The land overall is managed not only for timber regeneration, but for a wide variety of public land recreational uses and to feed and provide habitat for wildlife.
“When you fight Mother Nature, you’re going to lose,” Stevenson said.
Clear cutting most closely replicates the effect of a fire, because it lets the sun reach the soil after trees are cut, he said. Sun encourages either natural regeneration or young planted seeds and seedlings to grow more quickly.
Because it is believed much of the logging done here 100 years ago removed huge stands of pine, the county has planted new pine plantations for over 50 years. There are mixed soil types within the county, so some areas have also been left to self-regenerate into hardwood stands.
Stevenson and his staff have reviewed past successes and failures and are moving in some new directions based on the department’s management history.
It was thought planting hardy seedling trees would give pines a better start. However, these bright green succulent seedlings have been a huge food draw for deer. Many young trees died before they got a good start.
So, Stevenson has begun seeding pines from the air. The seedlings coming up from seed on the land are not as bright or tasty to deer and have succumbed less to deer browsing, he said. Additionally, an area can be re-seeded two more times if necessary for the cost of one planting of already started nursery seedlings.
Land department foresters consider soil types and watch natural regeneration to get a clue on what naturally grows best on different logged sites.
While aspen regenerates abundantly in cut-over land, Cass has had mixed results with other hardwoods.
The approach now is to see how a cut-over site regenerates for five years. If it is on sandy soil and the site has not reproduced new timber, it is likely conifers will be planted to that site.
For the first time this year, Cass Land Department began a program also to replant hardwoods in cutover areas.
Stevenson said he has found where oak that was too mature was cut, the trees did not re-seed themselves. So, for the first time, the land department has contracted this year to have acorns seeded on an acreage.
He said he expects to do the same for some plots of birch and ash in the next five years. It will be important to offset the effects of emerald ash bore on mature ash trees with seedlings that will not be big enough to attract the bores until after the bores die out.
The department’s annual report shows the county sold in monthly auctions in 2011 timber from 4,112.8 acres divided into 117 tracts. Loggers paid an average of $493.87 per acre for the wood.
Loggers bid on a per cord basis, purchasing 82,946 cords for $1,998,714.25 in 2011. They also bought 214,800 board feet of red and white pine saw logs for $32,455.06.
Among tree species, Cass sells aspen the most, because there is an excess of that species that is mature or over mature here. In 2011, Cass sold 37,348 cords of aspen, 12,872 cords of birch, 12,456 cords of oak, 5,721 cords of maple, 4,483 cords of basswood, 4,432 cords of red pine bolts and pulp (not high enough qualify for saw logs), 1,903 cords of jack pine, 1,083 cords of balsam fir and a few hundred cords each of additional species.
Cass also sells firewood cutting permits to private parties for $2.50 per cord after loggers complete their cut.
Stevenson said aspen prices appear to have stabilized after taking a wild ride up to over $70 per cord in 2005. Historically, aspen prices average $25 to $30 per cord the last 15 years. After the peak, prices dived back down to under $30 and hit a low in 2009 under $25. He sees the $27.47 paid in 2011 as a normal rate.
The land department has a Conservation Trust Fund 73. The principle in that fund was created when the county sold former state leased lots. The principle must be maintained, but the county has used $1,685,027.19 interest the fund generated since 2001 to help pay for natural resource improvement projects, eliminate erosion and pay toward some recreational trails development.
The land department receives over $200,000 annually from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for recreational trails maintenance. The county disburses that to six snowmobile and two all-terrain vehicle clubs and one ski club. Clubs volunteers provide the grooming and maintenance services.
The land department conducts annual sales of non-conservation land to the public. In 2011, eight parcels sold for $35,800. A June auction is scheduled this year, with a list available on the county website, www.co.cass.mn.us.
Cass has now updated the surveying of the northeast corner of all townships to re-establish corners first located in 1957 to 1871. Many of the original monuments were lost over time.
Cass’s land management has been certified through annual audits by the Forest Stewardship Council under the SmartWood program since 2001.
The land department cut its operating costs $230,319 in 2011 from 2010 to $2,452,148. Utilities alone were cut in half when the department installed film on windows in the building at Backus. Utility costs dropped from $14,005 per year to $7,521.
Stevenson said he expects to recover the $10,000 film cost within two years.
In addition to paying toward reforestation and trails from money the land department generates from tax forfeited property, a portion also was paid to the county general fund and to towns, cities and schools in which the land lies. In 2011, those funds ran $1,201,930 or 40 percent of the land department’s expenses.