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State forester: Minnesota puts priority on maintaining healthy forests

Fall colors glow in the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area in Big Fork State Forest.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Fall colors glow in the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area in Big Fork State Forest.

Patty Thielen of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources discusses the current state of Minnesota forests and unique aspects of forestry in Minnesota. The "Local Forest History" series is produced by Mark Jacobs.

“I’m so proud of the work that we do in the forestry division, and I’m really proud of how we have evolved over my career: really continuing to learn, making science-based decisions,” said forester Patty Thielen during the KAXE Morning Show as part of our “Local Forest History” series.

Thielen has two job titles: the director of divisional forestry for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and state forester.

"Our programs and our staff really want our forests to stay healthy and resilient and to provide all of the values that Minnesotans expect,” she said, referring to water quality and habitat as well as economic drivers.

The political climate of forestry

The forestry division’s work varies throughout the year. It includes testifying and providing expertise to legislative committees, developing management plans, and providing training and development opportunities to staff.

Working with the state Legislature is a large component of her work, and Thielen’s team sometimes begins discussing a legislative session over a year before it begins. She finds both Republicans and Democrats interested in maintaining healthy forests, saying, “I think in Minnesota, we’re in a pretty lucky place where both sides of the aisle often come together to support the work that we do.”

State of Minnesota’s forests

“I tend to think we almost entirely stand out,” Thielen said about the quality of Minnesota’s forests and forestry programs compared to other states.

There are over 17 million acres of public and private forests in Minnesota.

“One thing that is unique to Minnesota is our checkerboard of ownership,” Thielen stated.

“About half of the forests in Minnesota are owned privately, either industry or families: the other half, of course, are publicly owned – managed by the state, federal or county governments.”

Minnesota also boasts 145 school forests totaling over 8,000 acres.

The forestry division aims to maintain Minnesota’s forests while managing for various economic uses, such as logging and recreation.

“What we’re trying to do is cut down just a tiny amount of trees in the big picture across the landscape to make sure we have all of the age classes,” Thielen said. “That includes having older forests on the landscape.”

Overall, this effort has paid off. Minnesota’s forests are aging, with fewer acres up to 60 years old than were present 45 years ago, and twice as many acres of forests over the age of 60. Older forests tend to be healthier, more diverse, and provide important wildlife habitat.

Forest fire response and mitigation

A prescribed fire burns through a forest, imitating natural disturbance processes.
USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr
A prescribed fire burns through a forest, imitating natural disturbance processes.

Thielen cites the Minnesota Interagency Coordination Center as another standout aspect of Minnesota’s forests and forestry programs. It is unique in its approach to managing wildfire, bringing together the Department of Natural Resources, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and State Department of Public Safety.

Together, these agencies develop trainings, create standard procedures and practices, and work to coordinate their efforts to streamline in case of emergency.

“When things start to happen, we’re all ready to work together. We know who’s gonna do what to take care of business when there’s an emergency,” Thielen explained.

What is a sustainable timber harvest?

In 2016, at the request of then-Gov. Mark Dayton, the division of forestry set out to determine how many cords of timber could be harvested from state forests per year in a sustainable manner. In addition to this question, the division of forestry also examined best practices for managing the forests for a variety of forest values, including recreation, species diversity, and ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

At the time, they developed a 10-year plan for strategically managing DNR-administered lands and determined approximately 870,000 cords could be harvested for timber without long-term damage to the state forests.

In the years since, the forestry division has offered additional harvest of ash and tamarack trees to manage the spread of emerald ash borers and European larch beetles, invasive species which have decimated regional populations.

“We’ve actually not been selling everything that we offer, and the actual harvest level since before our analysis has stayed pretty much the same,” Thielen said.

In 2023, the Division of Forestry released its midpoint assessment of the 10-year sustainable timber harvest management plan. In addition to the volume-centric assessments of timber harvests, the report includes case studies of foresters working with wildlife and fisheries managers to help them achieve their goals.

“We are really lucky to have the public lands that we do here in Minnesota that are available for all of us to recreate on. At the same time, they provide a ton of other values: water quality, wildlife habitat, the economic values,” Thielen said.

You can learn more about Minnesota’s public forests and how they are managed at the DNR Division of Forestry website.

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