The north woods is an amazingly diverse and constantly evolving ecosystem.
The forest ecosystem
The northern forests of Minnesota are part of a unique landscape that circles the globe: the boreal forest. Fully a third of all the world’s forested areas are in this boreal, or northern, region. The boreal forest is one of the last places on earth where you can still find vast stretches of forestland that have never been harvested.
Minnesota is made up of three major biomes, or ecological regions, with distinct climates, soil conditions, and plant and animal species. The region where the Forest History Center resides is a convergence of all three biomes: the mixed coniferous and hardwood forests of the north, the deciduous forest or Big Woods of the south and southeast, and the prairie grassland of the west.
The most common boreal species are conifers such as black spruce, white spruce, tamarack, jack pine, and balsam fir, all well adapted to the region’s bitter cold and thin soils. Hardwood trees such as birch and aspen are often mixed in among the conifers. Moving south in the boreal ecosystem, into places like northern Minnesota, other species appear, such as white pine, red pine, and hardwoods like maple and basswood.
Commercial lumbering began in Minnesota in 1839 with the founding of Marine on St. Croix, which formed around the area’s first sawmill. A year later a second commercial mill was erected at Stillwater, and the lumbering boom began.
Minnesota logging peaked in 1900, with more than 2.3 billion board feet of lumber taken from the state's forests. But problems existed; catastrophic forest fires fueled by logging operations swept the landscape, leaving dry tree tops called "slash" and devastating many northern communities: Hinckley in 1894, Chisholm in 1908, Baudette in 1910, and Cloquet-Moose Lake in 1918. Seeing a need to begin conservation measures and fight the growing danger of forest fires, the state created the Minnesota Forest Service, a forerunner to the Department of Natural Resources.
Since the 1990s, Minnesota has witnessed an astonishing turnaround in the economic impact of its forests through a second forest revolution.
Today, the state's forest industries harvest approximately 3.8 million cords of wood fiber annually, very close to the harvest numbers at the peak of the white pine logging era, yet logging practices have changed dramatically.
Modern loggers use “cut-to-length” timber harvesters that process whole trees on site, reducing the number of machines at logging sites and doing less damage to the forest floor. The limbs and other unusable slash from the felled trees serve as a mat on which the heavy equipment moves. This prevents the soil from being compacted and damaged with deep ruts. Using these systems, timber stands can be thinned to increase light and air, and improve overall forest health.
Just as Minnesotans are demanding more forest products to support the economy, they are demanding more from forests in the form of recreation.
For many years, popular activities in the forest have included hunting, camping, berry-picking, and hiking. More recently, Minnesotans have added wildlife-viewing, photography, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, all-terrain vehicle use, mountain biking, horseback riding, personal car touring, and eco-tourism to the list.
Many of these recreational pursuits are not compatible with one another. Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers can’t share the same trails, nor can ATV riders and horseback riders. With a growing demand for forest use, this creates pressure on forest lands and the ecosystem.
With careful management, forests can accommodate many economic, recreational, and aesthetic needs. During the 1800s, forest resources were treated as consumable commodities rather than renewable resources. Today, Minnesotans work to ensure the sustainability and health of the forests. Industries, government entities, individual landowners, environmental organizations, and consumers all play a part in maintaining forest resources.
For further research
Forests, Fields, and the Falls: Connecting Minnesota web page Introduces students to Minnesota's lumbering, sawmilling, flour milling, and farming history through four first-person narratives presented in a comic-book format.