Addressing Natural Resource Challenges Through Research
Our natural resources form an interdependent web: forests need water to exist, and the quality of our streams and lakes is enhanced by forests that moderate runoff and purify water. Wildlife habitat, agriculture, and recreation rest in the balance.
It seemed simpler in 1903, when the new University forestry program emphasized reforestation and education to manage forest lands and prevent catastrophic fire. At that time, reforestation philosophy was adopted from proven methods of Northern Europe to "foster a fully stocked stand." Back then, research was focused on seeding and planting many trees per acre. Research to improve tree growth never stopped, but now foresters manage density by thinning and planting appropriately for diversity, health of the forest, other uses of the land, and ecosystem-wide concerns.
Demonstrating its stewardship heritage, Minnesota created some of the first statewide forest management plans in the mid-'70s. Today, U of M researchers provide key expertise to the team setting long-range management plans for the Chippewa and Superior National Forests in northern Minnesota as well as the teams developing water resource management plans for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and Voyageurs National Park.
University research that combines interrelated areas of natural resources has broadened the management vision. The interdependent web has been disrupted by exotic invaders such as Eurasian water milfoil, ruffe, zebra mussels, Dutch elm disease, purple loosestrife, and white pine blister rust.
This broader view—of forest growth and change, scenic values, recreation needs, bird and wildlife habitat, production of oxygen, and storage of carbon—is being adapted globally and embraced by the countries from which we borrowed our first ideas.
Eurasian Water Milfoil
Eurasian water milfoil is an aggressive, exotic plant that's choking many Minnesota waters. It grows rapidly and tends to form a dense canopy on the water surface, which interferes with recreation, inhibits water flow, and impedes navigation. University of Minnesota researchers are exploring ways to control it using natural enemies rather than the expensive and intensive mechanical and chemical treatments currently in place. The native milfoil weevil, Euhrychiopsis lecotei, has caused milfoil decline in observations of milfoil samples in Minnesota lakes and in controlled tank studies.
Itasca State Park Pines
U of M scientists have studied the white and red pines of Itasca State Park for almost a century. Their understanding of this well-documented forest's ecology now helps forest managers in Minnesota and the world regenerate pine stands after logging or fire and shape vegetation mixtures to foster biodiversity.
In the early '60s, studies at the park indicated that the picturesque pines were gradually being lost to wind, insects, disease, and overmaturity, and that root competition and shade were so intense that little natural reproduction was occurring. The University and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) developed management techniques to perpetuate scenic pine stands for future generations to enjoy.
University researchers also learn and share the results of an equally long, intensive study of limiting factors—soil type, moisture, nutrients, light, and competition from brush and other species at the Cloquet Forestry Center.
Wildness Research Center
For more than 50 years, the Wilderness Research Center in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has served as the base of studies to understand the region's ecology. By maintaining the most comprehensive biological survey reference for the area, the Center is a valuable resource for long-term studies.
It documents changes such as the movement of nonnative species into the wilderness, and the impact of introduced tree diseases. Information gained applies not only to Minnesota but to similar boreal forests in Canada, Scandinavia, and northern Europe.
Northern Red Oak
A decade ago Minnesota researchers led a focused effort to improve oak reproduction in the hardwood forests of southeast Minnesota. The wood of northern red oak is the most valued by the region's furniture industry. They found that harvesting trees in the fall disturbed the soil when acorns were dropping and significantly increased the number of new seedlings; they also learned that seedlings on south-facing slopes were most successful.
Using shotguns, forest scientists also "harvested" leaves and acorns from the upper reaches of mature red oaks. Using isozyme analysis they sought to determine if pure northern red oak had hybridized with a less attractive oak species, which in some cases had occurred.
Forest Research at Cloquet
Many early tests to determine the adaptability of tree species to Minnesota conditions were made by the University of Minnesota. Studies are ongoing at the Cloquet arboretum, planted in 1922, and in plantations established at Itasca in 1910. In the first part of the century, plantings were also monitored at the Hormel Institute at Austin and the Mayo Institute of Experimental Medicine at Rochester. A mixed conifer plantation of more than 200 acres, established by a forward-looking University forester in 1914 to protect the Lake Vadnais water reservoir of the City of St. Paul, is still available for study and recreation.