For peat’s sake

Marcell Experimental Forest
Some of North America’s most important climate research happens at the U.S. Forest Service’s Marcell Experimental Forest. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Today, I share my latest column for the Minnesota Reformer, “Bog is Dead: The waning defense of Minnesota wetlands.” 

When most people think about northern Minnesota, they picture forests and lakes. That’s understandable. We have a lot of trees and lakes up here, to be sure. But many overlook the vast peatlands that span the region, intermingling with and underlaying the woods and waters. Ecologically, these are more important.

I have struggled to find the right way to write about something so vital to our world as climate change. Climate change is real. It’s happening in many observable ways. Among the American population, however, and especially among my friends and neighbors in northern Minnesota, it is as debatable as Fords and Chevys, Vikings and Packers. It’s a belief.

As a writer, I could hector and lecture. Or I could downplay the matter, reveling in a warm and gauzy notion that everyone will come to their senses in time. Maybe there is no time. Maybe it’s too late? That, too, is a sort of cop out. 

So today I’m writing about climate change in a way that I hope presents a factual case and an opening for new understanding of our situation. There is no shame in loving the black smoke and growling engines of “motor head” culture while also accepting that things must change going forward. I grew up on an Iron Range junkyard in the middle of an enormous peat bog. The dichotomy is real.

Here’s an except from today’s piece:

After the last Ice Age, wetlands formed from the recession of glaciers as inland seas transformed into land. Dense, nutrient laden soil captured pools of water upon which layers of peat formed year after year. Even as humans erected smokestacks across the globe, the mosses and peat of wetlands seized and stored carbon from the air.

And if that doesn’t interest you, consider that these peatlands are now poised to belch all that carbon into our atmosphere, tilting climate change from bad to worse in a matter of years, not centuries. You don’t have to wonder what climate change might do to Minnesota’s forest ecology.

At the U.S. Forest Service’s Marcell Experimental Forest, you can see for yourself. Here amid the sphagnum, tamaracks and black spruce, scientists built a fleet of time machines. Each will take you to the future.

You can read the entire essay at the Minnesota Reformer.


  1. The fact that this RESEARCH faciilty had to be concerned about its name it totally disgusting, However that it exists is heartening. One feature on KAXE radio which I stream regularly for alot of reasons is the Phenolgy Report. The metro area needs something like that to draw more attention to the immediate ecosytems. As always thank you.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    About twenty years ago, there was a journal article on patterned peatlands in the Red Lake area. It described loss of carbon. When black spruce gets logged or burned, the ground dries out and carbon is released. Most of the sequestered carbon comes from moss, not trees. My daughter-in-law did timber cruising while attending Bemidji State. She said they found black spruce trees three inches in diameter that were 400 years old. My friend, the late Scott (Speed) Erickson, jr. from Orr said that during the white pine logging era, a number of loggers from up at the Cusson camp were killed and thrown into the bog along Hwy 53 north of Orr. (Those were violent times.) I’m sure their well-preserved bodies are still in there.

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