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The DNR is at war with itself over increased logging in Minnesota's forests

The DNR has set a quota for how many trees to harvest from state land, but its wildlife managers say it will hurt the ecosystem.

The DNR has set a quota for how many trees to harvest from state land, but its wildlife managers say it will hurt the ecosystem. Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

When you think about divided government, there are probably a million examples you’d picture before the Department of Natural Resources. But the Minnesota DNR is currently at war with itself over the fate of the state’s forests, with leadership on one side and a handful of wildlife managers on the other.

It goes back to 2016, when the Dayton administration asked the department to figure out how many cords of wood a year could be sustainably harvested from DNR-managed forests to make up for declining logging on private land.

What’s a cord, you ask? Picture a bunch of logs in a 4-by-4-by-8-foot stack. That’s a cord.

Now picture 870,000 of those stacks. That’s the number they settled on. It’s an 8.75 percent increase over the annual haul we’ve been harvesting for the past 15 years.

Twelve percent of those 870,000 cords are supposed to come from wildlife management areas – public forests set aside for plants, animals, and us. According to scientific modeling the DNR, environmental experts, and industry consultants have worked on over the past year, it should strike a sustainable balance between what the DNR’s willing to give up and the million trees a year the timber industry would rather have.

But the DNR’s wildlife managers – who spend a lot of time in those state forests – don’t necessarily agree. Back in July, 28 of them sent a letter to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, and Forum Communications (the Duluth News Tribune’s parent company) got ahold of it.

“We do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year plan is beneficial to wildlife,” the letter said.

One of those signatories spoke to City Pages. The DNR has ordered the managers not to talk to the media, so he requested to remain anonymous. But he’s definitely concerned.

“We’re going to have fewer visible trees and fewer of the species that rely on them,” he says.

The DNR may have created a scientific model, he says, but it didn’t take key impacts of logging into account – like what getting rid of a bunch of trees is going to do to animals, water quality, and the forests’ ability to withstand the pressures of climate change.

“We were directed by the governor to find the maximum sustainable yield,” he says. “It’s purely ‘how much can we yank out and give to the industry.’ That would be considered ‘sustainable,’ but it’s not good forest management.”

And frankly, he’s frustrated. The department has access to dozens of experts with Ph.D.s on the payroll, he says, but “none of them were consulted on the subject.” Instead, he worries, pressure from the timber industry will continue to push the department to further and further extremes, logging in more sensitive ecosystems and closer to waterways. 

“I think in St. Paul, they have trouble understanding what it’s going to look like on the ground,” he says.

The DNR didn’t respond to interview requests. Officials have told other news outlets that they’re respectfully listening to their managers’ concerns, but that their differences may be irreconcilable. If everything goes according to plan, the DNR will start surveying the timber and getting it appraised in fall, and increased logging can happen as early as this winter.

In a parallel universe where the only thing Minnesotans cared about was how much wood we could extract from nature, the unnamed manager says, he’d be more willing to act on this plan. But as an agency, the DNR’s job is to “manage public lands for the public,” and he thinks the public cares about birds, trees, and natural beauty too.

So he wants the public to know:

“We’re going to be wrecking a lot of habitat and ecosystems behind the scenes.”