The Department of Natural Resources appears to be breaking faith with hunters, trappers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds through its decision to include lands that are supposed to be managed primarily for wildlife as part of its goal for maximizing the state’s timber harvest.
Wildlife is critically important to Minnesota’s outdoor traditions, and at a time when wildlife populations are under increasing threats from climate change, habitat loss, agricultural chemicals, and more, this is the worst possible time to disregard the value of the state’s 1.3 million acres dedicated to wildlife production as part of our statewide system of Wildlife Management Areas, or WMAs.
Since the founding of the WMA program in the 1950s, the DNR has financed the acquisition of WMA lands primarily from the license fees that hunters pay or the extra donations that drivers make to acquire Critical Habitat license plates. Conservation groups and their members have donated millions of dollars and thousands of acres of land for creation and expansion of WMAs. Outdoor heritage funds, approved by voters specifically for Minnesota’s environment, are also part of the mix.
In other words, these dedicated wildlife lands exist today precisely because outdoor enthusiasts have been willing to invest in them. They didn’t do so to ensure maximum yield for the wood products industry. They did so to benefit Minnesota’s wildlife. Altering that mission in a way that undermines the very purpose of these lands is an affront to the millions of Minnesotans who have invested in these public lands and who regularly enjoy them.
We don’t mean to suggest that producing timber for harvest isn’t an important goal for the DNR. The state’s wood products industry is incredibly valuable to the northern Minnesota economy and ensuring that there is adequate supply from the state’s commercial forests to sustain the industry has long been a top focus of the DNR, and rightly so.
But Minnesota’s public lands have value that goes well beyond the production of commodities. For the vast majority of Minnesotans, the value of our forests lies in their scenic beauty and in the opportunity to see and enjoy wildlife, and it is such values that are potentially undermined by the DNR’s singular focus on increasing timber harvest.
We recognize that DNR leadership sees it differently, and believes that their plan for ramped up harvest still protects these other values. Yet, as we report this week, the people who are really in a position to know, don’t agree with the direction coming from St. Paul. A total of 28 DNR area wildlife managers recently signed a letter to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, expressing concern that valuable wildlife habitat is being lost in the rush to cut. And they are not just talking about lost habitat within the state’s commercial forests. They’re talking about habitat lost from WMAs, which aren’t being spared from the ramped-up cutting plan.
That should never happen. When the public invests in wildlife lands in Minnesota, it’s done in good faith, and with the expectation that wildlife production is the primary objective in the management of those lands. In forested WMAs, that certainly doesn’t preclude timber harvest, since it can be a valuable tool for wildlife managers as well. But timber harvest on WMAs should be used when appropriate for wildlife management, not when its necessary to meet an otherwise unrealistic harvest objective for industry. As we report this week, prime stands of oak, which produce some of the most valuable wildlife food, have been leveled from WMAs. Closer to home, wildlife managers cite the loss of critical conifer understory as well as denning and nest sites from aspen stands in northern St. Louis County as a result of the DNR’s recent decision to shorten aspen stand rotation, which is part of the ramped-up harvest initiative.
While the DNR is boosting harvest to help the wood products industry, let’s not forget that there’s another major industry that could be undermined by the current policies. Outdoor recreation, such as hunting and wildlife watching, is a major economic factor in Minnesota, one that’s estimated to generate a billion dollars in sales annually and to employ tens of thousands of Minnesotans.
We shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality wildlife habitat to sustain the state’s wood products industry. If the DNR wants to ramp up timber harvests, it should do so by increasing the harvest on private lands, by hiring more consulting foresters to work with private landowners. That’s where harvest levels have declined in recent years. Making up for the shortfall of timber harvest on private lands by sacrificing the mission of public lands dedicated to wildlife management is absolutely the wrong way to go.