A couple of unusual allies -- conservationists and a paper company -- are working together to preserve the 7,500-acre forest and wetland at the headwaters of the St. Louis River in northeastern Minnesota -- and it's raising more than a few eyebrows.
The Nature Conservancy, which bought the forest land late last year for $1.7 million, has contracted with Grand Rapids-based Blandin Paper Co. to devise a forest management plan for the property.
The conservation organization, which says it has been involved in protecting 92 million acres worldwide, is so impressed by the way Blandin has managed its own tree lands lately that it's paying the paper company $50,000 for advice on what to do with what the Conservancy calls "one of Minnesota's last great places."
"They've devised ways to grow a whole forest, not just the trees," said Tom Duffus, program director in the Conservancy's Duluth office. "With revolutionary thinking, they've gone to a forest management system that makes both ecological and financial sense."
Instead of simply planting and harvesting trees, Blandin's approach is a back-to-nature model. The goal is to return significant amounts of its 193,000 acres of forest to the way they functioned naturally.
The idea is that forests grow healthier and more quickly, with fewer management costs, when they contain all the varieties and ages of trees that nature would put there when left to its own devices. That means carefully studying a forest to determine what lived there originally, from giant white pines down to the fungi and microorganisms in the soil.
It means sometimes doing nothing, and sometimes using selective logging, controlled burns and other forest management techniques to mimic the fires, windstorms and other disturbances that were an important part of the life cycle in early forests.
Duffus said Blandin's philosophy fits what the Nature Conservancy envisions for the Sand Lake/Seven Beavers Landscape.
Though the Conservancy owns 7,500 acres of it, the whole area encompasses about 100,000 acres. Much of the rest is county, state and federal land, and the Conservancy hopes to collaborate with those governments on coordinated management of the area.
The land lies within Lake County, about 30 miles north of Two Harbors. The Conservancy bought its portion from a Milwaukee family that invests in timber land and had bought the tract in 1998 from the Louisiana Pacific Corp.
It has one of Minnesota's largest lowland conifer forests, with bogs filled with black spruce, tamarack and white cedar, rare plants such as Michaux's sedge, and large peatlands and wetlands that form the headwaters of the St. Louis River, Lake Superior's largest U.S. tributary.
The site is one of 55 Conservancy preserves in Minnesota, encompassing 60,000 acres.
Duffus said some conservationist allies don't like the arrangement.
"If a paper company is involved, I'd be willing to bet some of that land gets logged," said Ray Fenner, executive director of the Superior Wilderness Action Network. "I don't think an environmental group should tell the public they're saving forests and then allow them to be logged. If they truly want nature to take its course, leave it alone."
But Duffus defends the partnership. Increasingly, the Conservancy has sought alliances and made deals with people whom anti-logging interests might consider the devil, in order to get a conservation payoff.
To raise the dividend money, the Conservancy will cut timber itself -- carefully, selectively, and at the right time, with the hope of restoring the area's ecological balance and avoiding harmful runoff.
For the Sand Lake/Seven Beavers project, Duffus said, the Conservancy sought out Blandin because "we embrace those who have the knowledge and the tools to put forests back on natural trajectories. In this case it was a paper company."
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