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An Investment in Trees

After buying a cabin along the Gunflint Trail, Keith Wendt walked around his six acres and noticed little flags posted by young red maples. As a DNR ecologist, he recognized Acer rubrum as a once uncommon species for the far north, so he called the previous landowner to ask about the trees. The maple pioneers started popping up in the 1990s, the landowner said. Surprised by their arrival, he flagged new seedlings. Red maples have now multiplied throughout the forest.

A shift in forest composition is one of the landscape-scale changes arising as our climate warms. Our lead story in this issue, "Trees Fit for the Future," asks: As the environment changes, which tree species will be able to thrive in the north? Particularly uncertain is the fate of boreal species—birches, firs, and spruces.

Minnesota's boreal forest already has a precarious position. It stands at the southern edge of Canada's southern boreal forest. At 47 degrees latitude, our northern forest grows near the intersection of three major air masses (relatively dry Pacific, humid Gulf of Mexico, and polar air), which largely account for three major biomes (grassland, hardwood forest, conifer forest). If weather patterns shift, so do landscape boundaries. Rain makes a forest. Without regular rainfall, the forest gives way to grassland.

Of course, transformation of a forest is not so simple. Interactions among complex natural systems are complicated and perplexing. As our story tells, shorter, milder winters are already producing complicating factors. Larch beetles, for example, once kept in check by cold, have infested and killed tens of thousands of tamaracks in Minnesota. In several western states and Canadian provinces, mountain pine beetles are wreaking havoc on tens of millions of acres of pine forests.

To adapt to increasing stress, a system needs to be resilient. As past issues of this magazine reported, University of Minnesota researchers have shown that the greater the diversity of plants in an ecosystem, the greater its ability to withstand drought, disease, and other disturbances. University of Quebec professor Christian Messier is doing similar field tests on diversity in forests in Canada. The more complex the forest ecosystem, he says, the more options it will have for finding balance in a changing environment.

Northland timber owner Jack Rajala is working out new management strategies to adapt to climate change. "Looking Into the Forest" in our March-April 1992 issue showed him as a sawmill owner planting millions of white pines beneath a partial canopy of other tree species to protect seedlings from blister rust and tip weevils. Now "Trees Fit for the Future" says Rajala is managing for a new canopy of oaks and white pines by thinning out paper birch trees.

We all have an investment in trees. Besides producing timber, forests safeguard water quality and provide refuge for wildlife and people. And trees help temper the rise of carbon dioxide, a chief culprit in climate warming. As trees grow, they take in CO2, releasing oxygen and storing carbon in wood until it burns or decays. In fact, boreal forest plants, soils, and peat store more carbon than tropical forests do.

To foster healthy northern forests, land managers need the ingenuity of a variety of experts, says E.A. Johnson, director of the Biogeoscience Institute, University of Calgary. When puzzling over a problem, he suggests asking: Has a similar question been asked and solved in another field? Trendsetters, a new kind of story in this issue, will showcase innovative ways that various experts are addressing changes in climate and energy, landscapes, outdoor recreation, and other resource-related topics. The first profile features BioHaus, an environmental living center tucked in a northern forest. The people of BioHaus exuberantly demonstrate how to combine new technology with tried-and-true approaches to energy use.

A house in the woods seems like a perfect place to begin working out creative solutions for how to live sustainably now and in the future.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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