DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources commissioner has removed his top two forestry officials, saying he wants to see timber from state lands harvested more quickly to help the struggling forest products industry.
Dave Epperly, director of the Division of Forestry, will be transferred within the division, while Bob Tomlinson, his assistant director, was transferred into the DNR's Division of Lands and Minerals, the Duluth News Tribune reported Tuesday (http://bit.ly/sYH9iY ). Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Epperly will remain acting director until a replacement is found through a national search.
The changes were announced to DNR staff last month but weren't made public at the time, the News Tribune reported.
Landwehr told the newspaper he wants to make more timber available with less paperwork and delay for the state's loggers and mills, which have been hit hard by low demand and low prices resulting from the economic slump.
"Our primary effort was to continue to use Tom and Dave's skills but at the same time look for a new state forester to really kick things into gear," Landwehr said. "It's becoming clear we're going to have to do more with fewer and fewer foresters. And we needed some new leadership, some new blood, to get that going."
With private landowners withholding their trees as they hold out for higher prices in the future, and federal cutting regulations becoming stricter, Landwehr said Minnesota's timber industry is more dependent on state forests than ever.
"It's become clear in my 10 months (as commissioner) that we are inextricably tied to the (timber) industry, both to get our land managed and to provide them. We are their preferred source of wood," Landwehr said. "This is not an effort to necessarily cut more wood, or to in any way avoid sustainable forestry practices. . But we think we can get things moving through the system a lot faster than we have in the past."
Landwehr said Epperly will continue to work on refining the state's forestry management plan while Tomlinson will oversee a strategic assessment of the state's forestland holdings, namely whether sales or trades should be pursued with county and federal agencies.
Cutting across the state dropped from a peak of 4.6 million cords in 2006 to just 2.7 million cords last year.
Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Forest Industries trade group, said his members worked well with Epperly and Tomlinson, and that the change was unexpected.
"I really don't know where the pressure for the change at the Division of Forestry came from," Brandt told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It certainly didn't come from the organizations I represent. We respect the commissioner's commitment to moving forward and doing better in the future, but we frankly thought Dave Epperly and Bob Tomlinson were going a good job."
In Brandt's view, the impediments to moving more quickly on timber sales weren't the fault of the forestry division, but came from a cumbersome process that required it to have lengthy interactions with the DNR's ecological and wildlife divisions. "We understand that under Commissioner Landwehr's leadership the department is going to address that issue and they will be making that a priority," he said.
The forestry director oversees about 495 employees and a $73 million annual budget, according to the DNR. The division has had to absorb budget cuts from the state's general fund in recent years. It oversees 58 state forests that cover 3.9 million acres, much of it in northern Minnesota. The division is the single largest manager of timber land within the state, bigger than even the U.S. Forest Service.
Information from: Duluth News Tribune, http://www.duluthsuperior.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.