Planting a Forest for the Future

Red maples are expected to thrive in a warmer, drier climate in Northeast Minnesota.

Climate change is expected to transform Minnesota’s northeastern forests. Warmer, drier summers will likely take a heavy toll on Minnesota’s forests and in particular boreal species such as white spruce, balsam fir, paper birch and quaking aspen that currently dominate the landscape.

“The world is changing around us,” said Meredith Cornett, Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota. “One of the things we can do is to adapt. If we want a more resilient forest, we need to make sure we have a diverse new generation of trees ready to take the stage.”

To create a more resilient forest for Minnesota’s future, The Nature Conservancy worked with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science and the University of Minnesota-Duluth to plant more than 100,000 native trees on federal, state and county land in the Arrowhead Region.

In the summer of 2013 and 2014, the Conservancy and partners planted a total of 52,000 red oak, 23,000 bur oak , 26,765 white pine, 4,550 yellow birch and 2,000 basswood seedlings. Ecological models show that these species will thrive under warmer, drier conditions.

All are native to the area, but they are uncommon due to a combination of overharvesting, a historically cooler climate that favored boreal species and their own limited ability to disperse their seeds far and wide.

“They rely on transport by animals like blue jays for their seeds to travel long distances,” said Mark White, forest ecologist for the Conservancy in Minnesota. “Their ability to colonize new habitats is fairly limited in the context of a rapidly changing climate. That’s why we’re trying to give them a head start.”

While the adaptation foresty project is located on merely a few thousand acres of Minnesota’s Northwoods, it is expected to serve as a model for restoring the state's public and private forestland. 

“Forests are vital for our economy. They provide all kinds of jobs and products. People come up here for tourism and outdoor recreation including birding, hunting and fishing. Forests help keep our air and water clean,” Cornett said. “So, it’s really going to be a loss if we see today's forest just fall apart when there is so much we can do to boost its resilience for future generations.”

One native species that is expected to do well without any help is red maple.

“It’s not terribly common in the region right now, but it is increasing,” Cornett said. “But based on what we’re seeing and what we know it needs, it’s potentially going to do almost too well. We want to make sure the Northwoods doesn't become a sea of red maple.”

Figuring out how to help keep Minnesota’s Northwoods diverse and productive is the main goal of the project. “We can be proactive and think about how we can manage these forests so that they can function in the future,” White said. “Instead of having a lot of paper birch we might have more burr oak. But the benefits they provide – habitat for wildlife, wood for wood products – need to continue.”

Cornett said she hopes the project will help inform the efforts of forestland owners and managers throughout northeast Minnesota as well as in comparable boreal forests in the Great Lakes region including Wisconsin and Michigan.

“A resilient forest is one that has many different kinds of trees living in it. We want to help make sure that we’ve got trees that can withstand a range of conditions from warm and dry to wet and cool. And we want to see a mixture ages of trees too.”

Project partners include the Minnesota Forest Resources Council and the Sustainable Forests Education Cooperative.

The project has been made possible through the generous support of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) through its Climate Adaptation Fund. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation supported the establishment of the Climate Adaptation Fund through a grant to WCS.


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