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Forests and Carbon: An Interview with Blandin's Forest Ecologist, Sawyer Scherer

Landscape near Lutsen, MN
Landscape near Lutsen, MN

KAXE’s Tuesday Morning show strives to take an in-depth look at some natural resource-based issues important to our region. Hosts Heidi Holtan and John Latimer hope to not only discuss the problems, but also highlight some creative solutions.

The current focus, Forests and Carbon, is an issue that is receiving a lot of attention in recent years. In the first segment of the series, Todd Ontl chatted with John and Heidi about how forests sequester and store atmospheric carbon. In the second segment, Stephen Handler described potential changes in Minnesota’s forests due to a changing climate. In January, Eli Sagor from the U of MN discussed their information exchange efforts regarding forests and carbon. Last month, Meredith Cornett from The Nature Conservancy described their Natural Climate Solutions initiative.

This week’s guest was Sawyer Scherer from UPM-Blandin, who spoke with John and Heidi about Blandin's approach to managing carbon in their forestlands. Mark Jacobs, retired land commissioner from Aitkin county, also joined the conversation. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Heidi: Thanks for being here, you guys!

Mark: Good morning!

Sawyer: Glad to be here!

Heidi: Sawyer, can you tell us about the forest lands at UPM Blandin, and the overall approach to managing those forests?

Sawyer: Yes, absolutely. I’m sure a lot of folks across the listening area and especially in Grand Rapids are familiar with the big blue building in town. That’s us, UPM Blandin. We’re a paper mill and we’ve been around for quite a long time. Over the years, we’ve acquired a pretty large land base of forest lands in the region; currently, we have about 188,000 acres of forest land across northern Minnesota. Of those, the vast majority are within 30 miles of Grand Rapids, so folks in the area are likely familiar with them! It’s not uncommon to enjoy them through recreation or gathering [on them], or what have you. We have this unique conservation easement on our forest lands that ensures that they are managed sustainably, that folks can recreate on them in perpetuity, and that they won’t ever be developed or anything like that in the future. In terms of my role, my position is titled ‘forest ecologist’ and my responsibilities are to oversee the management of those lands. I get to work with a really great team of other foresters to ensure that we’re managing this land to its full potential: to meet the needs of society, but also make sure we’re doing things responsibly and sustainably. My responsibilities include everything from ensuring that we’re harvesting wood, to ensuring that we’re storing carbon and protecting wildlife habitat. It’s a diverse role and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Heidi: How has management changed over the years at UPM Blandin?

Sawyer: Many who live in the Grand Rapids area may be familiar with how much it’s changed over the years, and Mark can probably attest to this as well. Forest management is always changing. As we have learned more, and societal values concerning forests have changed, Blandin has made a pretty dramatic shift over the last 20 years- definitely within the last 10. It’s been a major shift away from this older ‘plantation’ model of growing forests, where the sole purpose was producing fiber for the mill in town. While that’s still a major component of what we do, we’ve shifted toward a new approach that seeks to manage the forest in an ecological manner. Basically, it’s growing the trees that want to grow on the site. This approach thinks about how we can increase diversity and resilience of the forests, create better habitat, produce product, store more carbon, and protect water quality: a more holistic approach. It’s been a big shift to a more diverse management style.

John: Sawyer, I know you folks have long wanted the fiber that comes from spruce, so a lot of white spruce gets planted. Is that going to be sustainable into the future? Are white spruce going to be able to grow at this latitude as the climate changes?

Sawyer: Yeah, that’s a great question. The short answer is that we don’t know with 100% certainty, but we’re doing everything we can to help ensure that. We know that spruce is predicted to be a ‘loser’ in terms of climate change. That being said, we know that’s not going to happen overnight and we think there’s some real opportunities for us to tailor our management in ways that enable us to grow spruce into the future. The second portion of that is that we do need to be thinking about plan B and plan C. So, we’re thinking about forest management and always increasing forest diversity. Rather than having a forest that’s just white spruce, we want to have 3, 4, 5, maybe even 10 species in any given area. Then, as things change (whether it’s climate, our demands, or even markets), we can hopefully adapt to those new conditions.

John: How are you planting now to encourage the multiple species you’re aiming for? I planted a lot of trees as a kid for Blandin, and we’d just get 10,000 white spruce or Norway pine. We’d just plant them all together. Are you breaking that up now? Does the person getting a bundle of trees now get maybe ten species, and then plant a mixture?

Sawyer: Yeah, it’s a really tailored approach for an individual site. Our most successful efforts have been in avoiding the use of some of those really intensive practices of the past. 20-40 years ago, the science was basically telling us to use things like heavy herbicide usage and other pretty intensive practices to get rid of that diversity so we can focus on just white spruce. Now, we’re trying to embrace that diversity that’s already inherent on the site, not just get rid of it. So, often we plant white spruce, balsam, white pine, and other conifers into stands that might be dominated by aspen or birch right now and lacking the conifer component that was historically there. We’re really trying to tailor it to sites, soil types, and plant communities where we know white spruce one thrived and trying to reincorporate it back into those systems that might now be heavily dominated by aspen.

Mark: I was going to ask, how have loggers adapted to the new style of forest management that focuses on diverse and complex forests?

Sawyer: We’re promoting these diverse forests. Certainly, this adds complexity. It was fairly simple; we had a white spruce stand, we knew what ages to cut it, and we knew what to expect. Now, as we’re encouraging this diversity, one thing that’s challenging is predicting the future. We don’t know with absolute certainty how things are going to change, but we’re doing our best to predict that and the diversity is going to give us more options in the future. But it’s challenging for logging as well, and as we get more complex, it brings challenges. In general, we’ve been very fortunate to have loggers and contractors across our region that have really bought into this and tailored their operations to fit our needs. Of course, that comes with a significant amount of coordination and relationship building between us and those loggers to really figure this process out. We’ve seen loggers transition to different types of harvesting equipment that is more adaptable and approachable in these scenarios where they focus on an individual tree, instead of simply producing volume.

John: Sawyer, when you guys go in to mark an area for harvest, are you still clear cutting for the most part? I know you’d have various markets for each species, with birches, oak, pines all going to different places and Blandin taking the spruces and whatever else you want. Are you still clear cutting, but then coming back to plant and allowing the birch and aspen that are already there to regrow?

Sawyer: In general, yeah, our most common practice would still be called a clear-cut harvest. Often, we incorporate a really large amount of retention, leaving standing trees from 5%-20% of the site (either in groups or scattered individual trees). That serves wildlife purposes, biodiversity purposes, and can also assist in providing the right environment for seedlings. In general, about 30% of our timber harvest is non clear-cut. It could be thinning, individual tree selection, group harvest, or a variety of different methods. We’re looking at finding ways to increase those nonclear-cut methods in the future. For right now, our forests are in a position where clear cut harvesting is still a very effective method and works quite well to do this restoration-type treatment.

John: Mark, you did a lot of work in Aiken County with loggers. Is it difficult to get loggers to buy into methods other than clear cutting, like selective harvesting?

Mark: You know, it used to be, but not so much anymore. I give credit to UPM Blandin because they’ve put a lot of effort into training their loggers and helping them get more light on the land equipment. Those efforts spilled over, so those loggers who were also doing some of our timber sales were able to do selective harvest and group selection harvest because they had the appropriate equipment.

Heidi: Sawyer, tell us a little bit about Blandin’s carbon offset project.

Sawyer: This has been a really interesting development for Blandin as we’re thinking about climate change. We’re trying to use lighter-on-the-land, more ecological approaches to forestry. As we pointed out earlier, they’re more complex, and part of that complexity means it’s more expensive to implement. We take a little more time to set things up, plan things out, and there’s opportunity cost because it results in us changing the amount of wood we harvest. But there’s this advent of a carbon offset market. For those who aren’t familiar with carbon offsets, it’s basically a financial instrument with one company or organization paying another to sequester and store more carbon. Oftentimes, forests get involved in this because a company might want to offset emissions from their own operation and essentially pay a forest landowner to alter their operations in order to increase the amount of carbon stored. That’s a very simple way of putting it. The changes we made in our management to increase retention, to grow things longer, and have more diversity enabled us to build one of these carbon offset projects. All of this management we’re doing is helping produce additional carbon storage on the ground, which we can sell as an additional forest product. It’s been incredibly valuable to us as a company, and helps support this more complex and more expensive type of future-minded management. It’s been a great program for us and it’s been going on for about 10 years now.

John: Do you see a time in the future where this carbon offset might be available to small or private land owners?

Sawyer: This whole field of carbon and forestry is just exploding. My career has been relatively short: I’ve only been out of school for six years now. In that amount of time, the markets and discussion around carbon and forestry has absolutely exploded. One of the big challenges right now is figuring out how to make it available to small land owners. They face a bit of a challenge because it takes money to develop a project, get it verified and monitored, and so on. With that being said, there’s a variety of good projects going on led by folks like the Nature Conservancy, the American Forest Foundation, you name it! There are dozens of programs that are being developed: land owners can search the web and find them. They’re rapidly developing and becoming available to anyone who owns 20 or 40 or 120 acres in Minnesota. There are options out there!

Heidi: Can the public find out more about the smart forestry program?

Sawyer: Hopefully, I can share some website links and get them posted on the episode web page [They’re posted below!]. Folks can google Blandin forestry and they’ll find our webpage, which has a great summary. They can look up UPM forest responsibility, or they could visit the Nature Conservancy, which did a really great story about this, summarized it, and produced a really nice video. If folks are really interested, I do encourage them to reach out directly to me or someone else they already know at Blandin to learn more. A big part of our mission is helping share information with forest managers and land owners across the region.

Heidi: So, you said you’ve been out of school for six years. It sounds like you’re not questioning the field you went into: it sounds like you’re more and more interested as time goes by. 

Sawyer: I absolutely love it, yeah. It’s a great place to work for, and a great field to be working in.

Heidi: I have a very big, very difficult question for you now. How is John Latimer in terms of curling?

Sawyer: Uh, well....

Heidi: Be honest!

Sawyer: He is much better than myself, I have to say.

John: Well, that’s kind of you, Sawyer. I missed you on the sheets this winter, and I look forward to another time when you can demonstrate your skills. Lot of fun going out and throwing rocks!

Sawyer: Yeah, absolutely.

John: Thanks for joining us this morning. Congratulations. My father was the original forester at Blandin, and I remember in the late 50s and early 60s, he went down to Georgia. They were experimenting with clear cutting in those days for monoculture. That was the pattern they accepted and used, and I'm glad to see that’s changing.

Sawyer: Yeah, absolutely.

Heidi: Thanks, you guys.

Sawyer: Thank you!

Heidi: Our conversation about forests and carbon will be available on our website this week, where you can also catch up on past conversations in the series.

Links provided by Sawyer:

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).