From tree-killing infestation arises hope for diverse North Shore forest
Landowners tap NRCS assistance and Lake SWCD forestry expertise as they mitigate the fire hazard brought on by a spruce budworm outbreak. By replacing thick stands of dead balsam with a variety of species, they’re helping to improve water quality and control erosion.
TWO HARBORS — As the ongoing spruce budworm outbreak turns dense, single-species stands of trees into fire hazards in Lake County and beyond, it gives landowners who clear the dead timber an opportunity to nurture a more diverse forest.
More than $1.3 million in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service was available for wildfire hazard mitigation-related practices from 2017 through 2019. With that assistance, more than 100 landowners treated about 1,500 acres in Lake and bordering counties.
More than 90% of those EQIP funds related directly to the outbreak.
“Where you have dense stands of balsam fir, it kills them all and it’s quite the tinderbox,” said Jon Sellnow, the Duluth-based NRCS district conservationist who has since taken a job with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. “The treatment is to reduce the fire hazard, but at the same time open up that dead canopy for regeneration and, if needed, re-establishment in the understory.”
Lake County is at the epicenter of an outbreak that extends to northern St. Louis County, the southern edge of Cook County and the Duluth area. Outbreaks generally occur on a 30-year cycle. This one is expected to persist for a few more years.
Spruce budworm outbreaks occur naturally. Dense stands of balsam fir do not. They filled in — unmanaged — in the decades after wildfires were suppressed and mature white pines were harvested. Despite its name, spruce budworm does the most damage to balsam fir.
Those dense stands shade out other trees, shrubs and plants that help to curb erosion — and how much sediment is carried into North Shore trout streams. EQIP assistance has allowed landowners such as Jamie and Penny Juenemann to augment their efforts to reset the forest.
By January 2020, the Juenemanns had planted 800 trees and shrubs on their 3-acre property bordering the Little Stewart River. In summer 2017, with NRCS assistance and help from a Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa crew, they had cleared the balsams and salvaged everything else on that land.
“Spruce will have some tolerance, but balsam fir, when they get to a certain age, it’s nearly 100% mortality,” Sellnow said. Balsam firs retain their lower branches, which act like a ladder that allows small ground fires to quickly move up into the canopy causing much larger, more destructive fires.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources identified 201,700 acres affected by spruce budworm within the Arrowhead region in 2019.
“The amount of dead balsam is not going to go away on its own. The forest will decline,” said Tim Byrns, a Lake Soil & Water Conservation District forester based in Two Harbors.
“In addition to the fire hazard and reduced forest productivity, there is no value in dead or declining balsam fir, and a very limited market for balsam fir in general,” Byrns explained. “So cutting and treating the woody residue on site is often the only management option.”
When the program launched in 2016, Byrns’ efforts to inform landowners extended to hand-delivering paperwork. Interest grew as more landowners could see how the practices worked on neighbors’ land.
Depending upon the practice, EQIP assistance ranged from $660 to $1,300 an acre.
“On these sites, it’s kind of an easy sell. Even a layperson can look at a forest and determine that it’s dead. This balsam fir comes in so thick, (with) spruce budworm anything over 40 years is basically 100% mortality. It’s the standing dead,” Sellnow said. “Removing it allows you to see the other trees that you couldn’t see before.”
With nearly $690,820 allocated and 55 new contracts, 2019 saw the most sign-ups in a single year. Twenty-one of those originated from landowners working through Lake SWCD. They resulted in 14 management plans affecting 192 acres in Lake County.
Most management plans also protected houses in the Two Harbors area from wildfires.
“The benefits kind of expand from there. You have a healthy forest, and it provides tremendous water quality benefits — both for slowing runoff and for filtering water,” Sellnow said. “Definitely clean air. Carbon sequestration. Wildlife habitat’s a big one.”
Thinning the forest makes way for larger, older, healthier trees.
“We have to go in and go through great lengths to get white pine and Northern white cedar and yellow birch re-established here,” Jamie Juenemann said in 2017. “It’s work to do what Mother Nature did on its own 150-plus years ago.”
The Juenemanns have worked 30 to 40 hours a week, spring through fall, to clear remaining balsams, plant trees and build 5-foot-tall wire cages to keep the deer out. After an August 2019 storm, they cut damaged aspen and birch, and repaired wire cages.
“I’d still do it the same way. I like the fact that it’s filtered sunlight hitting those trees. Its more drought-resistant as a result,” Jamie Juenemann said. “I really liked how doing it by hand was so much lighter on the landscape.”
Without soil compaction from heavy machinery — mechanical tree removal is one option for landowners to consider — Juenemann said the existing seed bank took hold sooner. A profusion of coltsfoot bloomed in the spring; large-leafed asters bloomed in the fall.
NRCS and SWCD employees accept applications year-round. Local work groups identify priority resource concerns and conservation practices. Applications are scored and ranked.
April 19 is the next EQIP application deadline.
The Juenemanns’ next project, which they’re tackling on their own, involves removing dead balsam from about 5 acres behind their house. And they’ll continue working on the 3-acre site.
“Our vision was that 100 years from now it would be like it was originally, before people were up here,” Penny Juenemann said in January 2020. “That’s our vision, but we’re just going to keep doing things that will help that happen.”
CLEAN WATER FUND: A pilot project funded by a $114,000 Clean Water Fund grant from BWSR allowed Lake SWCD to pay for a four-person CCMI crew in 2017 to clear dead trees, plant new ones and remove invasive shrubs.