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Paper birch trunks and limbs litter the forest floor along the Superior Hiking Trail near the Little Manitou River last week. Sights like this are common along the North Shore as acres of paper birch trees have succumbed to drought and disease in the past 25 years. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Amid vast tracts of dying birch trees, residents planting the seed to restore Minnesota forests

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The forest along Lake Superior's North Shore has been drastically changed by humans over the past century. Now, people are making a growing effort to change it back.

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In a landscape that's become dominated in recent decades by aspen, alder, grass and dying birch trees, groups are working from Knife River to Grand Portage to bring back conifers -- white pine, spruce, balsam fir and cedar -- that once filled the forest.

The problem is apparent to anyone who has driven along Highway 61 over the past 20 years: vast acres of dead and dying birches, replaced by a sea of grass and shrubs. And deer. Lots of deer.

"Some areas still look absolutely hammered. It's not the same North Shore when you look at that,'' said Molly Thompson, executive director of Sugarloaf North Shore Stewardship

Association. "We wanted to at least try to step up and help landowners restore what they can."

The association is a sponsor, along with the University of Minnesota Extension, of a seminar Friday at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center aimed at North Shore landowners and others who want to help the restoration along.

Some of the hardest hit areas are near the Lake County-Cook County line, not far from Sugarloaf Cove, where an association by the same name has taken a lead role in trying to clean up the wasteland.

Sugarloaf started the effort on private land in 2004, and Thompson estimates since then more than 5,000 trees have been planted across 500 acres. It's just a start, though, with some estimates that 600 square miles along the shore may be affected, from the lake shore to the top of the ridge.

"It's taken 100 years to get like this, and it's probably going to take another 100 to bring it back," Thompson said.

Small plots, big plans

Unlike inland forests, where vast tracts are managed by a few single owners (the Forest Service, state or counties), about 70 percent of the North Shore is owned by private landowners. Many of those tracts are small -- most less than 20 acres, and many just three to four acres. That makes it hard to identify each landowner and harder yet to develop a broad management plan.

Mike Monten is one of those private landowners. He has been coming to the North Shore since the 1960s. His parents purchased land there, and he now owns nine acres and a home of his own in Cook County's Schroeder Township. Monten spent the past 18 months attending regular forestry seminars, a Sugarloaf program called the Lost Forest Project. On Friday, he'll share what he has learned.

"I'm a land manager, albeit a small piece of land," said Monten, who has been planting conifers for a decade. "I'm trying to bring back my little piece of the North Shore. Collectively, we might be able to make a difference."

Various programs, through grants, have helped pay for trees, fencing, planning and even planting by the Minnesota Conservation Corps. But the biggest benefit, Monten said, is education.

The reforestation efforts are aimed at more than improving aesthetics along the highway. The core of the effort is to restore that broken forest eco-system for the 84 animal species that spend at least part of their year along the North Shore.

The type of trees in the forest also can make a big difference in water quality in an area that has the most designated trout streams in the state. Conifers do a better job of shading streams in summer months, and they do a better job in spring of slowing snow melt and runoff, preventing erosion that fouls streams. Moreover, dead birch trees can't absorb water at any time of year, speeding runoff into rivers and Lake Superior.

"The scope of this change (of tree species) has really changed the whole ecosystem along the North Shore," said Mike Reichenbach, a University of Minnesota Extension forestry expert. "The type of forest cover directly affects water quality. Conifers do a better job protecting water quality."

From slow death to new life

The North Shore's birch forest started to fade fast after a drought hit the region in 1988. Disease and insects may have compounded the decline, but many of the trees that sprouted after early logging efforts already were nearing the end of their natural lifespan. The problem is that not enough new birch are sprouting to replace the dead ones, and an influx of deer into the region over the past 80 years has prevented new conifers from taking their rightful place as the dominant species.

It wasn't always this way. The forest at Lake Superior's edge was dominated for centuries by big white pines, balsam fir, cedars and spruce -- prime species felled by loggers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When loggers left, settlers and then tourists arrived, and more acres were cleared to make room for cabins, farms, homes, lodges, condos and townhomes.

Throughout the past century, white-tailed deer moved into the cutover areas that had previously been dominated by woodland caribou. Deer have especially exploded in number along the shore over the past 30 years, and they love to munch young conifers.

The heavy concentration of deer requires elaborate and expensive fencing around virtually every new tree.

"I think the most interesting thing we've learned is the deer are not native to the North Shore. Other than climate change, I think deer are the biggest obstacle to restoring the North Shore forest," Monten said.

Reichenbach said other groups are joining the effort. Near Hovland, the Flute Reed Partnership is working to bring back conifers. And a bigger group called the North Shore Forest Collaborative, which includes the U.S. Forest Service and county foresters, is trying to take a broader look at restoring the entire shore. Minnesota state parks along the shore also are working to encourage conifers.

With pine and cedar growth measured by the decade, there are few illusions of any kind of fast turnaround. But that's not an issue for the people involved. The first conifers Monten planted a decade ago are, even now, just 5 feet tall.

"I'm planting a little bigger (started) trees now instead of seedlings because, to be honest, I'm in my 60s and I'd like to see some of the results," Monten said. "But, as the saying goes, you plant trees knowing full well you'll never get to enjoy the shade from them. We're doing this for the next generations."

IF YOU GO

What: Seminar and tour of efforts to restore conifers to the North Shore.

Who: Private landowners and anyone interested in the issue.

When: 12:30-4:30 p.m. May 11

Where: Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, between Little Marais and Finland.

Cost: Free

Online: www.sugarloafnorthshore.org

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