Up in Minnesota’s Northwoods, where Paul Bunyan once towered as a mythical folk hero, Jack and John Rajala embody the close ties between the region’s people and the land. When it comes to heritage, trees are part of the family tree of this father and son descended from Finnish immigrants. Jack’s granddad, Ivar, helped topple virgin pine forest as if it were inexhaustible, floating giant raw logs down rivers northward to big mills along the Canadian border. Jack, 72, has been in forestry all his life. And while John, now 46, went off to Dartmouth College for a degree in mechanical engineering, he later abandoned a corporate job to come home and work in the family business.
Millions of trees of a dozen major species blanket the Rajala’s 30,000 acres around Bigfork, population 469, which lies 250 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. The Rajala’s fine-grained wood products are coveted by highend carpenters, connoisseurs of custom flooring, and green-minded consumers worldwide.
Standing along the shoreline at Wolf Lake Camp—a secluded family retreat formerly owned by Gilded Age timber barons—Jack Rajala reflects on his grandfather, Ivar, who was of a generation that approached the forest as an endless resource and didn’t fully understand the forest for its trees. “They thought they had an eternal forest, but it proved to be not so eternal,” Rajala says.
Unlike other agricultural products, timber takes decades, even centuries, to grow. Thoughtful foresters always have their eye on the future, understanding that timber is only one product of a healthy forest. Rajala muses on questions such as: What will growing conditions be like over the next century? How can I plant my crop today to guarantee a sustainable forest that will be supporting many kinds of life decades hence—including my own descendents?
Such planning is even more necessary in the face of climate change, which is already altering the character of the upper Midwest’s 64-million-acre northern forest. By the end of this century, average temperatures in the Northwoods are projected to rise between five and ten degrees Fahrenheit. While no one knows exactly what these changes will bring, a U.S. Forest Service report projects that seasons will shift and the growing season will grow longer. Winters will be wetter and summers longer and drier. Storms, droughts, fires, and floods are very likely to become more severe, and pests and diseases will likely increase.
The Rajalas are banking that planting trees strategically today will bolster the resilience of their property, enabling the ecosystem and business it supports to better survive dramatic changes in climate. For example, they are seeding heat-sensitive birches on cool and moist north-facing slopes and nurturing stands of long-lived white pine, a species well suited to the temperature and precipitation patterns expected in a changing climate. In fact, Jack is known as “Mr. White Pine” in regional forestry circles for his efforts to restore that once-popular timber species to its former prominence.
“The Rajalas are planning many decades ahead because they have to—the survival of their company depends on it,” says Shaun Hamilton, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Northwoods Initiative, who has been working with the family on a plan to conserve a portion of their land. “But their motivation is about more than commerce. They’re also part of a movement to protect this place we call the Northwoods for generations to come.”
The Threatened Northwoods
Stretching across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the Northwoods are essential to the Midwest’s economy and way of life. The forest products industry in the three states accounts directly or indirectly for more than 280,000 jobs, and the region’s lake-dotted forests also attract millions of sporting enthusiasts and tourists each year—another mainstay of the region’s economy and identity.
But in recent decades, the changing economics of forestry have led many companies and private landowners to sell their forestlands, often for development. If development occurs in the wrong places, it can fragment the forest, complicate forest management, increase fireprotection costs, eliminate forest-based jobs, and disrupt recreation and tourism.
In response, public agencies, foundations, and conservation organizations have been working together to acquire threatened properties—or to protect them with conservation easements that preserve jobs and the environment while preventing development.
Climate change poses an additional threat—and how it is addressed will affect the health of the planet well beyond the region. The three northern Midwest states are among the top five states nationally in their ability to lock up carbon in their forests—keeping the global warming gas CO2 out of the atmosphere. “The Northwoods are enormously important in trapping greenhouse gasses,” explains Jad Daley, director of TPL’s Climate Conservation Initiative. “But that capacity could be lost if we don’t manage these lands to overcome the effects of rising temperatures.”
“If you talk to private foresters, who are out in the woods every day and have their finger on the pulse of things, they realize there is little time to waste and that all of us need to pay attention,” says Chris Swanston, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS), based in Houghton, Michigan.
The Forest Service’s commitment to address climate change was ratcheted up in November 2010, when the agency’s chief, Thomas Tidwell, issued a landmark memo mandating the development of new climate-response strategies across the agency. Perhaps nowhere is that work as far along as in the Northwoods, where NIACS has convened public and private partners to develop the Northwoods Climate Change Response Framework. Collaborators include the state forestry agencies for Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and nonprofit forestry and conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, American Forest Foundation, and TPL.
The framework seeks to create real-world, sciencebased strategies to help foresters, public and private forest owners, and conservationists become “climate smart” so they can better protect and manage the woods they love. NIACS has published a scientific report, Ecosystem Vulnerability and Synthesis for Northern Wisconsin; is developing a set of recommended management actions based on the report’s findings; and is convening workshops for public and private land managers to share recommendations.
Bigger is Better
One key strategy for conservationists will be continuing their work to prevent forest fragmentation by development, which weakens resilience to climate change. Bigger is simply better, says TPL’s Daley. “We need to create forested landscapes that function at their highest level possible so that they can handle whatever curveballs climate throws at them,” he says. Such landscapes also reduce the impact of climate change on wildlife by allowing species to migrate into suitable habitat as the climate changes.
On a sparkling July morning, TPL’s Shaun Hamilton joins district ranger Connie Chaney of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and local sportsman and conservationist Rick Olson for a boat tour through the Chippewa Flowage—exactly the kind of large forested landscape that is needed. Known locally as the “Big Chip,” this 15,300-acre wilderness reservoir along the Chippewa River in northern Wisconsin is rimmed by shadowy woodlands, bogs, and meadows, dotted with more than 200 wilderness islands, and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private forests.
“Just look at it,” Olson enthuses, pointing to ospreys and bald eagles, talons extended, skimming the surface for fish. He describes the howls of wolves and trills of loons that often echo across its misty waters. The flowage is home to migrating songbirds, wild elk, bears, and deer and is renowned for its world-class muskellunge and walleye fishery.
In its forests grow medicinal plants of native Ojibwe people. With its 200 miles of shoreline less than 10 percent developed, the Big Chip is just the sort of intact forest landscape that will be most resistant to damage from climate changes. But there is no guarantee it will stay that way, Olson says. “Regulations permit a cabin every 100 feet. Do the math. Without protection, this could be overrun like the Wisconsin Dells,” he says, referring to a crowded tourist area farther south.
Recently, TPL worked with Plum Creek Timber Company to protect 18,000 acres here with an easement that will prevent development and maintain sustainable forestry. Funded by the USDA Forest Legacy Program and Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, the project is the last piece of the puzzle to connect one million acres of federal, state, tribal, and easement-protected private forests around the Big Chip. The effort was part of TPL’s Northwoods Initiative that has protected more that 125,000 acres across the three-state region since 2000.
“What TPL has accomplished so far through its Northwoods Initiative is momentous,” the Forest Service’s Swanston says. “At the end of the day, landscapes that are intact and healthy have the best chance of retaining their biological characteristics. The kinds of trees in the forest might change, but hopefully many of the things we love about the forest will not.”
It’s all part of being climate smart says district ranger Chaney. Among the management strategies being explored are how to slow the drying of bogs using forest cover, how to foster habitat conditions that protect wildlife from being extirpated, and how to make stretches more resilient to insects and wildfires. These climate-smart management objectives can be achieved through carefully crafted logging that helps the forest products industry remain viable and achieves desired aesthetic results that outdoor enthusiasts want.
Conservation for Resilient Forests
“Our descendents will be looking back in 100 to 200 years and be grateful we were able to protect large chunks with a continuity of focus across private and public land,” says Dave Zumeta, executive director of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. “We would like to maintain ecosystems the way they are now. Where there are forests, we’d like there to be forests. The best strategy we have is conservation.”
Unfortunately, conservation takes money. Local donors and foundations, such as the Blandin Foundation, have helped to fund TPL’s Northwoods Initiative and other conservation efforts. But private funds are most effective when they leverage public, especially federal, money, which was drastically cut back in last year’s budget agreement between Congress and the White House. This includes funds that might be used to add lands to national forests or purchase easements to prevent forest fragmentation on private lands.
Among land awaiting federal funding for protection in Minnesota are 43 acres wedged between Kremer Lake and the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway in the heart of northern Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest. Owned for years by the Rajala family, the land includes almost a mile of lake frontage in a four-season recreation area and would be an ideal location for second-home development. But so far the Rajalas have resisted offers to sell, preferring to work with TPL to prevent forest fragmentation and add the land to the national forest.
Back at Wolf Lake Camp, Jack Rajala says that he’s not embracing conservation for himself but to give his grandchildren more options. “They’ll be living with some of the decisions John and I are making today. My hope is that these special places continue to be special. God knows if some of these predictions about climate change happen as expected, our descendents are going to need them.”
This is a common sentiment around the Northwoods these days, as forest managers and conservationists work together to make climate-smart decisions in the face of an uncertain future. Their successes might just set a course for the rest of the nation to follow.
Montana-based freelancer Todd Wilkinson writes for many national magazines and is a Western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. His story “Unfinished Business,” about the importance of federal conservation funding, appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Land&People.