Providing Resource Options to Citizens and Leaders
For every natural resource issue, there is often a multitude of approaches. Scientists synthesize the various alternatives, seek new options, and identify the value in each to help managers, administrators, and legislators make difficult choices about our lands and waters and the plant and animal life they support.
University of Minnesota researchers have assembled a wealth of data to analyze the costs and benefits of environmental practices, and have emerged as recognized leaders in shaping policy and legislation from local to international levels. The work is often multidisciplinary: U of M economists and silviculturists devised strategies to evaluate the benefits of county ownership of tax-forfeited lands, and analyzed whether tax incentives influence environmental practices used on family owned forests. And, researchers define optimal harvest rates for timber in Minnesota's national forests using computer models developed here.
Research can take years, and sometimes results may not be visible for a generation or more. New approaches to natural resources are tested by researchers in other parts of the world, and by public agencies or commercial interests. Finally, public opinion must decide if the new idea sinks or swims. In the above examples, Minnesota's forest tax incentive program and logging best-management practices have been very successful; both are now national models.
University researchers help students learn to identify many species of sedges, grasses, and aquatic vegetation. Fundamental understanding of the health of wetlands, marshes, and ponds is essential for future natural resource professionals faced with decisions of preservation vs. development. Once ignored or destroyed, wetlands are of growing importance to hold and filter water, and as wildlife habitat.
Controlling New Cedars
New cedars, such as the one shown at the top of the page leaning toward sunlight, appear near shoreline survivors. In the absence of fire, the species spreads inland slowly, about 50 feet per century. The University's research and ecological assessment of the devastating 1999 blowdown helped shape how prescribed burns would be carried out, to protect the ancient cedars and other species such as white pine.
Controlled burns are designed to prevent a cataclysmic fire that could burn down to the bedrock, leaving portions of the landscape as bare as after the glaciers.
Agriculture and Urban Growth Effect on Forest Land
While roads improve access to forests, they also change their character. Researchers found that almost eight million acres of Minnesota forests were lost from 1910 to 1990, most in the period up to 1950. Losses between 1930 and 1950 were primarily to agriculture; since then losses were due to expansion of transportation corridors and urban growth, in addition to conversion to agriculture.
Studies Shape Regulations in the Boundary Waters
University studies of fire history, forest ecology, acid rain, and water resources have helped shape USDA Forest Service regulations that strive to balance protection with accessibility in the BWCAW. Forest ecologists have documented 1,000-year-old "refuge populations" of white cedars, as shown. The trees survive fire and wind due to their location along the lakeshore and their short stature. The University has conducted ecological studies in this area since the early '50s.
Timber Harvest Effects on Soil and Water
University researchers investigated the effects of timber harvesting on soils and on water movement through forest soils in the '70s. In the '80s, a study evaluated the proposed harvest of 200,000 acres of peat in northern Minnesota to quantify the impact on stream and lake water quality. Based on that study, the peat harvest never happened.
Soil Limitations Lead to Reforestation Efforts
After the logging boom in northern Minnesota, cut-over lands were sold for conversion to farms. But Herman H. Chapman, head of the University's Agricultural Experiment Station at Grand Rapids, saw that the soil was suited for timber, not agricultural crops, and believed land speculators were exploiting would-be settlers. He spoke out at the 1903 summer meeting of the American Forestry Association in Minneapolis, in a speech so controversial that he resigned immediately thereafter. Chapman's opinion was proven correct: much of the land's fertility was soon depleted, replanted with trees, ended up on county "tax forfeit" rolls in the '20s and '30s, and has been managed as county forests ever since, providing steady income to schools and local public services. Chapman was one of the first to recognize what many did not understand—that about 40 percent of Minnesota's land, almost 20 million acres, is much better suited to growing trees than food crops. The pine plantation he started at Grand Rapids in 1900 is a living testament to his pioneering efforts in reforestation.