Northern Minnesota forests face existential change

Crews haul away the tall dead white pine that stood sentry over our land long before it was our land.This Star Tribune feature “Saving the great north woods” from this past Sunday is a must-read. It parallels the same line of thinking I used in writing my Sunday column “Now entering the Minnesota century,” only with more scientific explanation and expert testimony. Essentially, if you stop arguing whether or not climate change is happening (it is), you can start to plan things we can do that would be helpful to our northern Minnesota forests and future quality of life. This approach could not only save Minnesota’s future, but cause it to flourish.

From the Josephine Marcotty story:

A stark forecast looms for Minnesota’s great North Woods, the mixed hardwood and conifer forest that grew when the glaciers retreated during the last great climate change 12,000 years ago.

Driven by a warming climate, scientists predict, the forest will soon follow the glaciers and retreat north by as much as 300 miles in the next century. Much of northern Minnesota, they say, will become open savannas like those in Nebraska and eastern Kansas — with grasses and brush, a few scattered trees, and domes of bare rock rising from the ground.

For future generations of Minnesotans who love fishing, canoeing and the sight of a moose in the piney North Woods, that cherished outdoors experience is likely to be the stuff of grandparents’ tales.

Gone too, will be the storied creatures — lynx, owls, pine martens — that evolved along with the northern forests. Altogether, the transformation will have enormous impacts on northeast Minnesota, including the wilderness area that draws 250,000 visitors every year and has become a destination of national renown.

But Cornett’s new resolve is shared by many other scientists, landowners and tree lovers who are confronting the inevitability of a warmer world. With planning, research and enough human intervention, they say, Minnesota might hang onto a forest even in the face of a climate that, geologically speaking, is changing at a breathtaking pace.

It won’t be the same North Woods. But, like Laura Kavajecz’s tiny twigs, it’s one that might thrive in the climate of the next century.

But make no mistake: Northern Minnesota forests will look dramatically different in the lifetimes of my three sons, who we’re raising in a house in the woods on the southern edge of the boreal forest. The stories they tell their grandchildren will amaze them.

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