One of the more persistent myths about Minnesota's forests is that without management they will return to the white pine forests of a hundred years ago.
The reality is that the forest is a living organism, progressing through stages from birth to middle age to death and re-birth again. The forest we see in northern Minnesota today is not the forest our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents knew. The majestic White Pine Pinery that was harvested late in the last century was already a climax forest, prime for eradication by fire, disease or wind.
The U.S. Forest Service has monitored an old-growth pine forest on Star Island in Cass Lake for years. What started out as an overstory of old growth White and Norway Pine with an understory of shade-tolerant hardwoods like maple and basswood has ended up as almost entirely a maple and basswood forest.
Foresters call the concept "the accidental forest." What it means is that Minnesota's forests are prey to natural forces over which man has little control. The older mixed hardwood and softwood forests (aspen, birch, spruce and pine) that are so common in northern Minnesota today are not the result of logging but of fire. Fires in the northwoods have long had an effect on forest composition. The Hinckley Fire of 1894, the Baudette Fire of 1910, and the Cloquet Fire of 1918 all contributed to a dramatic change of the forest landscape in the early part of this century. The over-mature aspen that dominates northern Minnesota's forest today is a result of natural regeneration that took place following the terrible wildfires in the dry years of the early 1930s.
Scientists at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth point out that climactic changes also have a major impact on forest types. Over the past several thousand years, alternate warming and cooling trends have resulted in different forest types across northern Minnesota. The voyageurs who explored Minnesota's northern border 200 and more years ago wrote about the absence of game, a sign that the forests were mature and incapable of supporting an abundance of wildlife.
The forest that we have inherited is an accidental forest. But through sound application of scientific forest management, we can ensure that the forest of the future will be healthier, more productive and more diverse than the one we enjoy today.