COOK- When looking at a gigantic 20-year plan, you have to start somewhere, and the Superior National Forest’s LaCroix District will soon be unveiling its first five-year segment of the plan …
COOK- When looking at a gigantic 20-year plan, you have to start somewhere, and the Superior National Forest’s LaCroix District will soon be unveiling its first five-year segment of the plan for forest rehabilitation in the roughly 130,000 acres of federal land within the district’s boundaries.
Elements of the plan were front and center at an open house Tuesday at the LaCroix District Ranger Station in Cook, and LaCroix District Ranger Sunny Lucas and Silviculture Forester John Bennett were on hand to talk about the LaCroix Landscape Project, an initiative that’s been years in the making.
Forest Service monitoring reports have shown that traditional planning approaches have not been able to keep up with the needs to improve forest conditions. According to the Forest Service, this new plan will use a multifaceted “flexible toolbox” to help put the right treatment on the right spot at the right time.
The patchwork nature of lands owned and managed by the state, tribal nations, private landowners and other entities and agencies in the LaCroix region provide a challenge when it comes to forest management. Forests don’t know manmade boundaries, and a stand of trees that overlaps state and federal boudaries might well benefit from a comprehensive treatment approach. Bennett said there’s a group of stakeholders, the Arrowhead Landscape Collaborative Group, that’s been working together since the project’s inception in 2019 to address these issues.
“We’re going to try to put blocks together that make sense for management and we’re going to try to treat the best that we can,” he said. “We need to fit what we’re trying to do with what other groups are trying to do and work together to put the best land management into place.”
The toolbox contains a list of 21 different treatment options, each linked to a particular condition with specific objectives to attain. For example, thinning trees is a natural option for a condition in which red and white pine and spruce are spaced too tightly together, with the objectives of maintaining or improving stand health, increasing structural diversity, providing sustainable products, and adapting to climate change.
Conditions are also linked to acreage limits during a specified period of years. For example, to accomplish timber stand improvement would utilize treatments over no more than 15,000 acres over a 15-year time span.
“It’s driven by what’s needed on the ground,” Bennett said. “A lot of our fuels treatments are also kind of restoration focused on protecting people, property, and then also reducing the balsam fir. Another treatment we’ve looked at is for our grass areas that are suitable for riparian burns to really increase their health because migratory birds use that groundcover for both nesting and habitat. We’re going to be managing for both forest health and productivity– that’s central to what we do.”
“We’re proposing to use condition-based management,” Lucas said. “If we get out there in five years and we’re not seeing what we thought we were going to see, we can pivot to a more appropriate treatment. So, we’re not locked in to exactly what we’re proposing. We can pick from a suite of options for the flexibility to deal with climate change or spruce budworm or address issues the [tribal] bands come to us with. I think that’s an exciting aspect of this.”
Another challenge to the desired collaboration is securing funding for treatments on parcels of land that aren’t part of Superior National Forest. But that’s also where collaborating partners come in handy, for example, in looking for grant funding options that may be viable.
“Maybe there are opportunities where private landowners can work with Cooperative Wildfire Defense Grants to get some funds to treat on private lands adjacent to federal land and we can get more bang for our buck,” Lucas said.
The Arrowhead collaborative lost a bit of steam during the COVID pandemic, as well as from the retirements of the Superior National Forest supervisor and the DNR state forester, but it’s about to get a jump start in the near future with the hiring of a full-time coordinator.
“The Forest Service has put money aside from the bipartisan infrastructure funds to hire a coordinator, because that’s what’s really lacking now,” Lucas said. “There’s interest from all the parties, but we need someone to convene and coordinate that group. That coordinator position is going to be filled in the spring, and it’s going to be a two-year position to start, hoping then that more funding can be generated through other grant opportunities.”
A component of the landscape plan that Lucas believes will be readily appreciated by the public is a focus on fuels reduction.
“That’s definitely something people can understand, especially with some of the catastrophic wildfires that have occurred in this area over the years,” she said. “In order to protect people’s property you can’t have too dense of a forest. Healthier trees that are left behind are going to grow, and you’re going to be protecting adjacent private land with a person’s cabin or home.”
Fuel reduction also will benefit habitat for animals and birds, including moose.
“If you have a completely dense, socked in forest where you’re not doing forest management, you’re losing moose habitat. Moose need open spaces,” Lucas said. “Humans have managed the forests long before the Forest Service existed, living together with wildlife. Forest management is not new, it’s just formalized.”
Responsible forest management also benefits the local economy by creating conditions in campgrounds and trails that are more appealing to recreational users, Lucas noted.
The proposed plan got its first formal batch of feedback last summer during a comment period, and that information has been incorporated into the plan that will be released for another round of public comment in a few weeks, Lucas said. And prospective commenters will find plenty of helpful information online about the proposal.
“A draft environmental assessment will be there along with links to a map you can zoom in on to see the treatments, and what we call a story map with some text and a lot of visuals in terms of what all the different treatments we’re proposing are,” Lucas said. “We’re thinking now it’s going to be available for 45 days instead of the usual 30 days because with Christmas and New Years we want to give people enough opportunity to comment.”
Those in the Crane Lake and Vermilion Falls areas may have a greater interest than others, as a large swath of tracts in that area are proposed to receive treatments in the first five-year cycle of the plan. Future plan cycles will have their own public comment plans for their proposed treatment options.
If all goes well with the comment period, revisions, and formal adoption of the proposal, Lucas said she expects plan activities to begin in 2025.