Minnesota's forests: balancing jobs and our environment

fedgazette Editorial

Gayle Peterson

Published September 1, 1989  | September 1989 issue

Minnesota's forests have long played a large role in our state's economy and quality of life. They draw people from around the nation and provide the basis of our state's $4.4 billion travel and tourism industry, employing 108,000 people state-wide.

The 13.6 million acres of commercial forest also provide the raw materials for a $4.4 billion forest products industry. While many people are aware of the thousands employed in paper mills, strand board plants and in the forests, most are not aware that more than half of the 54,000 jobs in this industry are in the seven-county metropolitan area. In such areas as paper making, windows, furniture and mobile home construction.

Currently, the forest products industry is undergoing a tremendous expansion in the state. More than $1.2 billion is proposed for investment in new and expanded paper and strand board plants by such companies as Boise Cascade, Blandin, Potlatch and Champion. The increased demand for raw materials for these plants will more than double the harvest of Minnesota's forests from 2.8 million cords per year in 1977, to an estimated 5.6 millions cords per year in 1995. Most of the harvest will be of aspen, with a million acres, an area the size of the entire Boundary Waters Wilderness, cut every three years.

Many people are beginning to wonder what impact this tremendous increase in forest harvesting will have on other forest resources and users. Will Minnesota forests still support a diverse and healthy wildlife population? What are the implications for rare forest species? Will forest soils be depleted by short-rotation "tree cropping"? Can our priceless water resources be protected? Will Minnesota landscapes still draw vacationers and delight residents? These and many other questions must be addressed to assure that Minnesota's forests are managed on a sustainable basis to protect all resources.

Project Environment Foundation (PEF) has proposed to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and representatives of the forest products industry that all three parties should participate in a cooperative process to study these and other questions, recommend forest management practices to address them and oversee implementation of the recommendations. Cooperative processes of this nature have been successful in resolving contentious disputes over forest management in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Unlike some of those other processes that began after people became polarized, PEF is proposing a dialogue before the political and legal fireworks begin. The basic differences already exist in Minnesota, though polarized public debate is only beginning. An opinion poll conducted for the DNR in 1988 shows that the public, by a margin of 6 to 1, opposes increased forest harvesting, with 30 percent undecided.

PEF and other members of the environmental community are looking to participate in a facilitated process that will study the implications of increased forest harvest. Using information developed in the study, the participants will recommend and oversee implementation of forest management practices, legislation and public policies that will protect all forest resources, while providing the raw materials necessary for industrial growth and economic development.

With plant expansions already under construction and plans for increased harvest under preparation, little time remains to implement policies to mitigate the impacts of these actions on other resources. A forestry dialogue will enable environmentalists, industry and governmental organizations to immediately begin working on issues of concern and avoid divisive political and legal battles.

Formed in 1974, Project Environment Foundation is a Minneapolis-based, non-profit organization engaged in public policy research and environmental legal advocacy. Peterson has been engaged in public service/advocacy work for over 11 years in Chicago and the Twin Cities, most recently as a consultant to the city of St. Paul and as a legislative consultant for Project Environment and the Sierra Club. She was named executive director of Project Environment in 1987.