A Century for the Trees

25 min read

From fighting fires, to planting seedlings,
to managing forests for sustainability, the state’s
Forestry division has a 100-year history of standing up for trees.

by Mary Hoff

Winds swirled through the twin towns of Baudette and Spooner in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 1910. Gusts fanned the embers of slash fires smoldering in nearby cutover forests—not an unusual situation for logging towns. As it turned out, these were the winds of change.

Throughout the day, smoke wafted through dust-dry air. A report came in that flames, fed by logging debris, had leveled the town of Pitt to the west. Then, as dark fell, watchers on the roofs of some of the town’s tallest buildings sounded the alert: “It’s coming, headed straight this way!”

Residents who could, fled. Others headed for the Rainy River to take refuge in boats as the conflagration swept through. By morning, both towns had burned down and 42 people had died.

The Baudette-Spooner fire, which burned more than 300,000 acres, was just one of many blazes in Minnesota’s north woods in the early 20th century. In 1908 more than 400,000 acres of forest land were scorched by fires ignited by sparks from trains, land- clearing fires, or other incendiary events. The fires were fed by slash piles left in the wake of the cut-and-run logging that characterized the times.

But the Baudette-Spooner disaster turned out to be different for a historic reason: The following year, in 1911, the Minnesota Legislature created the Minnesota Forest Service to serve as caretaker for the state’s fast-disappearing forest lands. Today, the organization we know as the Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry has a proud history of protecting forests from fire, reforesting cutover lands, managing state forests, educating the public, and guiding timber harvest to sustain both forests and the forest products industry.

Land of Trees.

At the end of the most recent glaciation some 12,000 years ago, the story of Minnesota forests begins. Trees worked their way northward across the tundra. Uneven terrain left by the big ice, along with variable rainfall dictated by mountains to the west, shaped diverse natural communities—prairie, big woods, and boreal forest.

For millennia, more than 31 million acres of forests provided food and shelter to the first people who migrated into the region we now know as Minnesota. Then European settlers arrived. In the 1800s, the newcomers saw forests as raw material to build a nation. Entrepreneurs began cutting trees and sawing them into boards to build houses, hotels, and shops. Thus, Minnesota’s forest lands began a dramatic transformation.

Loggers took on the trees in the vicinity of the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Rum rivers, on land ceded by the 1837 treaty between the U.S. government and the Ojibwe Indians. As additional treaties expanded available land, logging grew too. By 1870 more than 200 lumber mills peppered the state. Forests turned into slash-littered tinderboxes, and fires were frequent.

“No one was concerned about the burning of the cutover lands,” wrote DNR Forestry chronicler Elizabeth Bachmann in a 1960 Conservation Volunteer article. “Weren’t they to be converted into farms? Burning was an easy way to clear lands, they reasoned. … The pioneer attitude was that getting rid of forest by whatever means meant development and expansion.”

In 1894 a particularly fierce blaze incinerated the entire town of Hinckley, killing 418 people. Following the disaster, Civil War veteran Christopher Columbus Andrews, who learned about scientific forestry while serving as a U.S. diplomat in Scandinavia, pushed the Minnesota Legislature to set up a system to bring forest lands under public ownership and manage them sustainably. The Legislature responded in 1895 by establishing the positions of forest commissioner and chief fire warden. Andrews won the post of chief fire warden. In 1899, at Andrews’ urging, the Legislature established a state forestry board to manage state-owned forest lands.

Andrews’ efforts fit well with a spirit of conservation that had already begun to take root around the state. In 1871 the state Legislature had passed a tree bounty law paying landowners $2.50 an acre to plant trees on the prairie. In 1876 entrepreneurs had formed the Minnesota State Forestry Association to encourage the planting of settler-attracting trees on the wide-open lands of southwestern Minnesota. In 1891 the Legislature had established Itasca State Park, preserving virgin white and red pines.

A year after the forestry board was commissioned, Minnesota set aside its first state forest reserve, 990 acres of cutover pine woods in Cass County donated by Gov. John Pillsbury. In 1903 the board established the first state-owned tree nursery on that land.

But money was tight, and Andrews had sparse resources to follow through on the vision of managing forests for the future. Due to lack of funding, his forest rangers were laid off in September 1910—less than six weeks before Baudette and Spooner went up in flames.

Coping With Consequences.

When the 1910 Baudette-Spooner blaze stirred the Legislature to establish the anti-fire, pro-forest force we know today as DNR Forestry, it was a breath of fresh air for Minnesota’s forests. The new entity consisted of a state forester office, 15 district rangers, and a forestry board. (Andrews, then 81, was appointed board secretary.) In addition to wildfire prevention, it began setting aside land for state forests and planting trees to replace those lost to logging.

By 1920 the endless northern forest did not seem so endless. Harvest was 576 million board feet—down from more than 2 billion in 1900. Many logging companies had moved to the Pacific Northwest, where vast expanses of massive conifers still stood. State forester William Cox wanted to limit timber harvest. But J.A.O. Preus, state auditor and land commissioner in charge of state-owned timber sales, favored clear-cutting. Preus became governor in 1921, and in 1924 the forestry board dismissed Cox.

Fortunately for forests, Preus did not get the last word. The Legislature quickly abolished the forestry board and replaced it with a conservation commission, headed by Cox’s former assistant. It also passed a constitutional amendment to encourage reforestation. The tables had turned, from cutting trees with no thought to the future to managing forests as though tomorrow mattered.

Regroup and Regrow.

In 1931 the state Legislature established the Department of Conservation, and the forest service became its Division of Forestry. The division’s official charge reflected the shift in attitude toward forest management: to apply forests “to the highest and most productive use for the permanent good of the greatest number of people.” Its responsibilities included managing state parks and timber sales on state land. It established a state forest nursery near Akeley to produce seedlings to replace the fallen giants.

And none too soon. Minnesota’s forests had shrunk to 19.5 million acres. With the big trees gone, timber production had dropped dramatically. Families had tried and failed to farm the cutover land and ended up turning much of it over to the government in lieu of taxes. In 1932 a commission appointed by Gov. Floyd B. Olson recommended cutover lands be reforested and used for timber production and recreation.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the masses of unemployed workers during the Great Depression. With creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, the state’s Forestry division hired thousands of young men to plant trees and build roads, bridges, and buildings on public land. For nine years, CCC workers boosted Forestry’s firefighting power and planted more than 25 million trees.

With the onset of World War II, the nation’s manpower moved from the CCC to the armed forces. And the Allies needed wood to build barracks, docks, airplanes, and weapons—leading to increased demand for Minnesota timber.

Forests for People.

As Minnesota’s involvement in World War II was coming to an end, its interest in producing trees on private land was growing. The American Tree Farm System, formed in Washington state to encourage owners of private land to manage their forests sustainably, got a foothold in Minnesota in 1943. Four years later, state foresters began providing advice and assistance and state nurseries offered seedlings.

Despite all efforts, mature timber remained in short supply. Only 200 million board feet of wood were harvested in 1955. The 1961 Conservation Volunteer article “Forestry Plans for the Next Fifty” called for reforesting 5 million acres of land and expanding nursery production to meet demand for wood.

By the 1950s, trees were in demand for another activity—outdoor recreation. Station wagons bursting with baby boomer children headed for the great outdoors. In 1963 the Legislature established a record 25 state forests. Forestry had to balance timber harvest with the needs of Minnesotans taking to the woods just for the fun of it.

The first Earth Day in 1970 was a pivotal time for DNR Forestry. Forestry increased its environmental education and took a more ecological approach to forest management. The division hired ambitious young men and women to manage state forests as sources not only of wood but also of recreational opportunities and scenic beauty.

The Second Revolution.

By the 1980s tree planting in earlier decades had grown mature timber. Minnesota entered its second forest revolution. Between 1980 and 1985, forest industry jobs grew from 30,000 to 52,000. Annual harvest increased from about 1.1 billion board feet to roughly 1.9 billion board feet. By the early 1990s, annual harvest was about 2 billion board feet and forest products comprised the third largest industry in Minnesota. This time, unlike Minnesota’s first timber boom, clear provisions were made for sustainable forestry.

In 1982 the Legislature passed a law requiring DNR Forestry to reforest as much state land as was harvested each year. And in 1989 the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board began work on a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) to get a big-picture view of how forests would fare under various harvest scenarios.

Completion of this GEIS in 1994 was a watershed moment for Minnesota forestry: It set a new direction for ecosystem-based management—looking beyond the trees to weigh the impact of forestry practices on soil, air, water, wildlife, aesthetics, and recreation. In 1995 the Legislature passed the Sustainable Forest Resources Act and established the Minnesota Forest Resources Council to ensure environmentally, socially, and economically responsible forestry.

Entering the new millennium, Minnesota’s forest products industry hit hard times. Changing global markets caused demand for Minnesota timber to plummet. By 2003 the industry was so threatened that the governor assembled a task force to investigate ways to help forest products regain traction in the new economic climate. In its 2007 final report, the task force identified renewable energy production (woody biomass) as a strategic opportunity for the forest industry.

In 2011, as DNR Forestry celebrates its 100th anniversary, the challenges identified by Gen. C.C. Andrews a century ago have mostly been met. Fires are managed with unprecedented capability. Forest health is valued over maximum harvest. The science of forestry has evolved to include a spectrum of technologies and practices not even imagined a century ago.

Today, DNR Forestry confronts new risks. Invasive pests such as the emerald ash borer threaten to destroy vast swaths of forest. Forest lands are being purchased and parceled for development, fragmenting Minnesota’s once-continuous north woods. Climate change holds the potential to reconfigure forests as dramatically in this century as logging and fires did in the last one.

Looking back at his division’s proud history, DNR Forestry director Dave Epperly sees a pattern in the change. “It’s a continued growth, a continued learning, a continued adaptation,” he says, “and that’s our strength.”

First Forestry Commander

image of big pike caught near Park Rapids in the 1940s

The practice of forestry in Minnesota can be traced back to a Civil War hero who admired Scandinavian principles of sustainable forest management.

Christopher Columbus Andrews was a lawyer and state senator in St. Cloud when he enlisted in the Union Army in 1861. He rose to the rank of brevet major general, serving with the Minnesota Third Infantry in the siege of Vicksburg and capture of Little Rock.

After the war, Andrews was a U.S. diplomat to Sweden. He was impressed by Swedish regulations in timber cutting, which included replanting after harvest and leaving seed trees standing at 70-foot intervals for five years after logging. Andrews brought this notion of sustainable forestry back to Minnesota, where he agitated at the state Legislature for the creation of a state forestry department. In the wake of the 1894 Hinckley Fire, legislators finally acquiesced and named Gen. C.C. Andrews chief fire warden.

Andrews continued as a forestry advocate within Minnesota’s state government in various posts until his death in 1922 at age 92. His accomplishments included organizing Minnesota’s first network of fire wardens, establishing the first two state forests (Pillsbury and Burntside), and introducing the concepts of forestry conservation and reforestation. In a 1907 article, the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote that Andrews was “indefatigable, traveling over the state as the herald and exponent of rational forestry.” He was honored with dedication of the General C.C. Andrews State Forest Nursery in 1940, which three years later became part of a 7,700-acre state forest near Willow River.

Celebrating 100 Years of Forestry

image of town of Beaver

Look back at a century of forest management in Minnesota with Connected to Our Roots: 100 Years of Growing Forests in Minnesota. Inside this 104-page book, you’ll find images, narratives, maps, documents, and firsthand accounts from those who have worked to protect and care for Minnesota’s forests. Connected to Our Roots is available from Minnesota’s Bookstore or by calling 651-297-3000.

Additional Links

DNR Forestry Timeline

DNR Forestry Anniversary

Growing Years

Forestry History


ElyMinnesota.com thanks the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer for this article, you can see more great articles on Minnesota Nature at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer/index.html

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