At sunrise Saturday morning upward of 200,000 Minnesotans will be suspended in air -- not figuratively, as in cloud nine or the euphoria felt on the arrival of the firearms deer season, but literally.
Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans will be in tree stands high off the ground to better see white-tailed deer.
Tree stands are the preferred method for hunting deer in the wooded parts of Minnesota. Beginning this season, however, Cass County hunters who hunt on public land must take a different approach to tree stands. It's no longer legal to cut trees to build a stand, or to build a stand from manufactured lumber and nail it to a tree. In fact, there's no place in Cass County where hunters can legally erect permanent tree stands unless they are free-standing.
Two ordinances that took effect in June have banned permanent tree stands on public land. The first ordinance makes it illegal to destroy merchantable timber without a permit, and the second makes it illegal to drive steel, iron, ceramics, etc. into timber that will produce forest products.
"Our policy is very simple," said Cass County Land Commissioner Norm Moody. "You can't damage our trees. No nails, screws, bolts. People should know they can't do this anymore."
But a lot of hunters have been doing it for a lot of years. Cass County's 250,000 acres of public land have a prodigious number of permanent stands. Some 40-acre plots have as many as six stands, Moody said.
"The average is easily two or three per 40. That's a lot of stands. Thousands and thousands of stands. Even if there was just one per 40 that would be 6,000 stands. Two per 40 would be 12,000 stands, and we know in many areas there are a lot more than that."
Some people see huge, ungainly tree stands as an eyesore. But Cass County's ban is for monetary, not aesthetic, reasons. The state forestry association estimates $4,000 is lost if a tree with a stumpage value of $100 can't be harvested because it's damaged by nails.
"Forty percent of the money from timber sales goes to the school district, 40 percent to the general revenue fund and 20 percent to the township where the trees are cut," Moody said. "Very quickly you're into hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost revenue. It's a big loss to the county."
It's also dangerous. Loggers who hit nails with chain saws can be injured by flying metal, as can sawmill operators who hit nails with high-speed saws. Hunters who fall through the rotted wood of a tree stand can be killed or suffer permanent disabilities.
Shooting lanes are a related problem. Trees that hinder a hunter's ability to make an unobstructed shot are customarily removed. In some places, however, shooting lanes are more like superhighways.
"We've found places where people have cut down an acre of trees under the pretense of making a shooting lane," Moody said. "If it's a really good aspen stand that costs the county anywhere from $700 to $1,000 per acre. They justify it by saying, 'That's young aspen. There's no value there.' But that's like going into a cornfield when it's knee high and cutting out an acre because there's no value there. Well, half the value is there."
Tree stands such as this one are not legal on public lands in Cass County. The large pine onto which the stand is nailed cannot be milled -- a loss of thousands of dollars to the taxpayers of Cass County.
Under the new ordinances it's OK to prune branches. Removing an entire tree is against the law.
If hunters on public lands are forced to use portable stands it might help eliminate other problems. For example, Cass County officials recently found where somebody had built 34 tree stands, cleared a large camping and parking area and planned to rent campsites and tree stands to hunters. Permanent stands also are used to mark territory and ward off other hunters.
Another old trick: Hanging a "No Trespassing" sign on public land so hunters not aware of public and private boundaries stay out of the woods for fear of trespassing. Moody said county employees spend a significant amount of time in the week before the opener taking down illegally placed "No Trespassing" signs.
It will take years to remove all permanent tree stands from Cass County woods. Moody said if new stands are found they will be taken down, but stands already in place will be left until the woods are logged. About 2 percent of the county's woods are logged each year. The rotation cycle takes 50 years or more to complete. Hunters with permanent stands on county land have ample time to switch to portables.
The fine for building a permanent stand is double the stumpage value of the trees involved. If a $100 tree is used to build a tree stand the person who damaged it will be fined $200. Next year the fine triples, Moody said.
Taxpayers of Cass County have been informed about the new policy and Moody said public support has been positive.
"We hope people who see permanent stands being built will report them," Moody said. "That's how law enforcement works. Break the law and somebody turns you in."
Aitkin County's policy is that spiking trees is illegal and permanent tree stands are discouraged. But much of the county is lowland grass and willow swamp. In these areas county officials encourage hunters to use free-standing tree stands, such as tripods or platforms on stilts.
"If you fire a shot on level ground it can travel a long way," said Roger Howard, Aitkin County land commissioner. "But shoot from a tree stand and the shot angles downward and doesn't travel as far. So there's a safety aspect to consider."
In Crow Wing County permanent tree stands "are allowed but not encouraged," said Thomas Cowell, Crow Wing County land commissioner. "In some areas, such as along ski trails, permanent stands are aesthetically unpleasing. We're planning to remove four stands from the Wolf Lake ski trail area after Dec. 1."
Cowell added that he would like to see a statewide ban on permanent tree stands on public lands.
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