DULUTH (AP) -- The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is setting aside nearly 40,000 acres of state forest as old-growth forest, protecting some of the state's oldest and largest trees from logging.
The total acreage protected amounts to less than 1 percent of all state-managed lands and an even smaller percentage, less than 0.3 percent, of Minnesota's 15 million forested acres.
About 50 percent of the state's forest was old growth -- 120 years and older -- before farmers and loggers began clearing it in the 1800s.
The DNR plan is the first official protection for many of the more than 750 stands of old timber on state land, which are trees that were missed or bypassed by loggers over the past century and some of the last virgin timber left in the state.
"These are the last, best old trees on state land," said Keith Wendt, a DNR planner who headed the Old-Growth Forest Committee. "We inventoried all the potential old growth on state land, and these are the ones that scored the highest,"
Old growth trees provide unique habitat and important forest diversity. They also can be critical in regeneration with their strong genetic traits to survive and reproduce.
"These are the oldest and least disturbed ecological communities in their areas," said Kurt Rusterholz of the DNR's Ecological Services Division. "Some species, quite a few really, require very old forest cover or they can't survive."
The same trees also are the best trees for the lumber industry.
Of the nearly 40,000 acres protected, about 22,000 acres are on land where the old trees were in danger of being cut, such as state forests. The rest are in state parks and scientific and natural areas and likely would never have been logged.
The DNR's plan was released Friday and will be available on a Web site for public viewing next month. Foresters also will be alerted which lands are off-limits for logging.
The plan took the DNR's Old Growth Forest Committee eight years. The committee included staff from the planning, forestry, wildlife and ecological services divisions.
The trees considered for old growth included red and white pines, cedar, oak, spruce, fir, maple, basswood and some additional northern hardwood species. Other species -- such as jack pine, aspen and birch, which rarely reach 120 years -- weren't considered.
The agency found about 70,000 acres of old growth trees on state land that are 120 years old or older. But many of those trees were in very small clusters and weren't included in the final plan.
Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers, said his group supports the new old-growth protection plan. But he said the long delay in forming a plan may have kept some saw timber off the market especially during a downward market.
"We agree with the concept of protecting trees that truly meet the definition of biological old growth, not just an old tree," Brandt said. "We're hoping now that we have a plan that some of the area (forestry) managers will release some of that red pine that isn't included in the old-growth status."
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