Toward the end of the 1800s, people began to realize that years of neglect had a devastating effect on natural resources, particularly the forests. Efforts directed at preservation and restoration were begun.
When European Americans began to settle Minnesota in the early 1820s, they found about 19.5 million acres in natural prairie systems and about 31.5 million in forests. Fewer than 200 years later, only about 0.3 percent of the natural prairie remained, and forests have shrunk to fewer than 18 million acres. The vast pine stands have been harvested and replaced with aspen and birch hardwoods.
John Muir (1838–1914) was the nation’s most passionate advocate for the preservation of forestlands in their natural state, and for allowing forests damaged by logging and fire to return to wilderness. A powerful writer and a founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir was not opposed to the responsible use of resources but argued that the world needed to save its wild places from human destruction.
Any fool can destroy trees… Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time — and before that — God has cared for these trees. But he cannot save them from fools. — John Muir, Atlantic Monthly, 1897
In Minnesota, Sigurd Olson (1899–1982) was known as the “poetic voice of the modern wilderness movement.” Having spent most of his adult life at the gateway to the Boundary Waters in Ely, he was a romantic nature writer and a strong public force. He was a founder of the Wilderness Society in 1935, and was a pivotal figure in both the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the creation of Voyageurs National Park in 1975.
Man must recognize now that… his attitude toward wilderness has entered a new phase. For the first time in his evolution as a thinking, perceptive creature, he can look at it with understanding and appreciation of its deeper meanings, knowing that within its borders may be the answer to his longing for naturalness. He needs to know that the spiritual values that once sustained him are still there in the timelessness and majestic rhythms of those parts of the world he has not ravished. — Sigurd Olson, The Spiritual Need, 1965
Programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created during the height of the Great Depression, had a significant impact on both the economy and the environment. The CCC put 2.5 million young men to work nationwide in the great outdoors, planting trees and fighting forest fires, building roads, dams, bridges, and thousands of miles of telephone lines, and erecting buildings at state parks.
In Minnesota, the CCC employed over 84,000 men at more than 100 camps. Their reforestation efforts are perhaps the most significant, as they planted 124 million seedlings throughout Minnesota’s northern forests, many of which are still standing tall today.
In the forest there are ugly scars that have been created by careless loggers or seared by fires sweeping across the once-green landscape. Like a colony of ants rushing to repair their kicked in sandhill, the CCCs have swarmed over these barren areas each spring and fall, scraping, digging, and tamping, leaving in their wake row upon row of tiny green pine trees with their roots firmly planted in the soil. — Floyd Colburn, 1998 reminiscence of Bena Camp in 1937
The effects of global warming
Healthy forests are a key element in the fight against pollution and global warming, but at the same time they’re very much at risk. Climatic shifts that changed boreal forests to prairies and back again were macro changes in the forests. The changes brought on by modern Minnesotans may be just as drastic.
A warmer climate will bring dramatic change to the northern Minnesota forests. If conditions become warm and dry, forests could be replaced by brushland and savannahs, with open fields, smaller oaks, and stunted pines. A warm but wet climate might still allow oaks and maples to thrive, and forests could become denser. But warmer temperatures also allow some devastating pests, such as the spruce budworm, which is already a problem in many parts of the northern forest, to thrive.
"To preserve and protect..."
Forest land available for industry and recreation has shrunk from 31.5 million acres in 1820 to about 15 million acres today. Because of the significance of the forests to Minnesota’s economy and the threat that irresponsible use of the forests poses, there are a number of laws and policies on the books to help preserve this valuable resource.
In the 1970s, concern for the environment broadened into a sweeping national movement. The year 1970 saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the world’s first Earth Day. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and a year later the Endangered Species Act.
Voyageurs National park & Forest Resource Council
The environmental focus in Minnesota was on forests and wilderness. In 1975, after a long struggle, Voyageurs National Park finally became a reality, and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed a bill banning logging in the Boundary Waters and expanding wilderness designation there to more than a million acres.
In Minnesota, the legal underpinnings for forestry policy and use stem from the Sustainable Forest Resources Act of 1995. According to this law, it is the policy of the state to:
- Pursue the sustainable management, use, and protection of the state’s forest resources to achieve the state’s economic, environmental, and social goals
- Encourage cooperation and collaboration between public and private sectors in the management of the state’s forest resources
- Recognize and consider forest resource issues, concerns, and impacts at the site and landscape levels
- Recognize the broad array of perspectives regarding the management, use, and protection of the state’s forest resources, and establish processes and mechanisms that seek and incorporate these perspectives in the planning and management of the state’s forest resources
In addition, the law established a Forest Resources Council to implement its initiatives and to advise local, state, and federal government entities on forest policies and practices. The council is comprised of representatives from commercial logging contractors, conservation organizations, county land departments, environmental interests, forest products industry, game species management, labor organizations, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, non-industrial private forest landowners, research and higher education, resort and tourism industry, secondary wood products manufacturers, and the USDA Forest Service.
Even with such a diverse group of professionals working on forest resource issues, the general public still has a considerable role to play. Minnesotans purchase forest products daily, elect officials to make policy decisions on forest use, recreate in forest lands, and seek aesthetic pleasure and enhanced quality of life from the state's forests.
Minnesotans must continue to be good stewards of this renewable resource.
Conservation at the Forest History Center
The Forest History Center implements a number of sustainability initiatives right at the site. Manure from the horses is used as fertilizer for local organic gardening. The Forest History Center is a certified tree farm, and has planted 5,000 trees in the last five years with the help of local scouts, schools, and volunteers.
Forestry education and phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, is an important part of the site as well, with many phenology events open to the public throughout the year.
The Forest History Center partners with UPM Blandin Forestry, based in Grand Rapids, to support sustainability initiatives and practices throughout the forestry industry.