Questions and Answers about the Sand Dunes State Forest operational plan

Process/Planning/Policy Questions:

Q: There is an old saying, "If it's not broken, don't fix it." Why is DNR changing its management direction for the Sand Dunes, and why is this change considered "essential"?

A: The Sand Dunes State Forest has always been managed for a variety of purposes: to produce timber and other forest products, provide outdoor recreation, protect watersheds, and perpetuate rare and distinctive species of native flora and fauna. In recent years, after much discussion and analysis, DNR has determined that certain areas of SDSF may benefit from shifting to a greater emphasis on rare features management via native ecosystems rather than on timber management via forestry plantations. While timber will continue to be an important product of the Sand Dunes, focusing on native ecosystems in certain key areas will help to better protect a variety of rare plants, animals, and habitats into the future against growing threats such as habitat loss, climate change, and invasive species.

Q: Will the changes in the Sand Dunes affect recreational opportunities/public access? If so, how?

A: The management direction changes in the Sand Dunes will not impact the recreation rules anywhere in the State Forest, including the Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area and the Bob Dunn Recreational Area. The public will be able to continue to use the trails and hunt as allowed by the current regulations.

Recreational users may experience the State Forest differently as the vegetation shifts to a greater proportion of native plants. This may mean having the opportunity to see new or different wildlife, plants, and ecosystems. These changes will take place over the course of several decades. As is the case in all State Forests, users may find recently harvested areas difficult to access for several years while slash breaks down and the forest is regenerating. Designated trails, however, will continue to be cleared of any post-harvest debris.

Q: How well does the plan coordinate with the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge management plan?

A: The Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) is a "living" management document with a 100-year scope. The plan is revised approximately every 15 years. The CCP is a guidance document, while the Refuge's Habitat Management Plan provides more detailed management direction for native plant communities. While the Refuge's management plan focuses more specifically on restoration of native ecosystems than the operational plan for the Sand Dunes, there are clear parallels between the Sand Dunes plan and the management plan for the Refuge in terms of managing native plant communities in the Anoka Sand Plan. [source: Tony Hewitt, SNWR]

Q: How and when will DNR decide if changes will be made to the existing Sand Dunes operational plan?

A: The stakeholder advisory group public engagement process is intended to provide an opportunity for interested stakeholders and members of the public to advise the DNR on its management direction in the Sand Dunes. This process is ongoing and the DNR is formulating responses as feedback is received. Any needed plan revisions, as determined by department leadership based on feedback received and best available scientific information, are projected to be completed by summer of 2017.

Q: What is the DNR's policy on rotation age of red pine and how does it impact the SDSF?

A: The DNR recognizes two types of red pine stands: plantation forests and forests of natural origin. The pine plantations on Minnesota's state lands were established and are managed primarily to produce an economically valuable tree species for harvest. Income from these harvests funds important forest management work as well as K-12 education in the state. Therefore, DNR seeks to maximize the economic value of these plantations consistent with the sound resource management practices set out in both department policies and third-party certification standards. Economic analysis has shown that the ideal economic rotation age of plantation red pine in Minnesota is 60-70 years. Red pine plantations in the Sand Dunes will be thinned and final harvested based on this rotation age.

The rotation age for red pine stands of natural origin is generally older (100+ years) and is determined by the specific DNR Section Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP) for the region. There are no natural stands of red pine in the Sand Dunes.

Q: What restrictions does the 2016 Minnesota Session Law (Ch. 189 Sec. 47) place on harvesting in the Sand Dunes?

A: Regarding timber harvest in the Sand Dunes, Minnesota law states:
(a) Until July 1, 2017, the commissioner of natural resources shall not log, enter into a logging contract, or otherwise remove trees for purposes of creating oak savanna in the Sand Dunes State Forest. This paragraph does not prohibit work done under contracts entered into before the effective date of this section or work on school trust lands.

Further, the law requires that the DNR submit a report to the Legislature documenting public collaboration efforts related to management decisions in the Sand Dunes:
(b) By January 15, 2017, the commissioner must submit a report, prepared by the Division of Forestry, to the chairs and ranking minority members of the house of representatives and senate committees and divisions with jurisdiction over environment and natural resources with the Division of Forestry's progress on collaborating with local citizens and other stakeholders over the past year when making decisions that impact the landscape, including forest conversions and other clear-cutting activities, and the division's progress on other citizen engagement activities.

Q: What resources are available to private landowners who want to do tree, prairie, or wildlife management projects on their own land?

A: The DNR can provide technical advice to landowners bordering the State Forest who are interested in planting trees or other land management projects. Contact Area Forester John Korzeniowski, [email protected] for more information.

Q: How were priorities for the Operational Plan established?

A: The Sand Dunes are managed under the DNR's forest management plan for a large ecological area of the state called the Anoka Sand Plains. This plan is called the Anoka Sand Plains Subsection Forest Resource Management Plan (ASP-SFRMP). SFRMPs are created through a joint effort of the Divisions of Forestry, Fish & Wildlife, and Ecological & Water Resources. Priorities are set through evaluation of current ecological, economic, and social data; DNR policy; and state law. These priorities are expressed as "desired future conditions" for state forests. All SFRMPs undergo public review before they are adopted by the DNR. The specific Areas to be managed under each of the five management zones in the Sand Dunes was determined by DNR Regional Managers and the Regional Director, with input from field staff. Specific language and guidance was determined by the operational plan project team. The final plan was viewed as a compromise that strove to reach a balance among the various resources to be managed.

Q: Will the DNR be removing any trees in the 'Immediate Management Area' before their economic rotation age?

A: Yes, the Operational Plan calls for removing pines in the Immediate Management Areas by the year 2022. There's an estimated 170 acres of pine out of the 513 acres in the 9 Immediate Management Areas. While the majority of these pines are below 60-70 years of age, the removal would be done by commercial timber sales where the pines have commercial value.

Q: How does the DNR ensure compliance to rules during timber harvests?

A: A DNR Timber Sale Administrator (TSA) is assigned to every timber sale. The TSA is required to visit an active sale often to ensure that the operator is following all regulations. Before the timber sale is "closed" and the operator is released from the contract, the TSA does a complete inspection of the sale. Any deficiencies must be corrected by the operator before the DNR closes out the contract.

Q: In any given year, how many acres of forest in the Sand Dune does the DNR plan to manage using a 'clearcut' method, also known as a 'regeneration harvest'? Over the next 10 years?

A: When clearcutting is used as a regeneration method for a forest, the Society of American Foresters defines it as: "the cutting of essentially all of the trees, producing a fully exposed microclimate for the development of a new age class (of trees)." A regeneration harvest or clearcut is generally defined by the DNR as a timber harvest method that removes approximately 95% of the trees on an area usually three acres or larger in size. The purpose of this method is to mimic large-scale natural disturbances (such as catastrophic wildfire or windstorm damage) that, in nature, allow sun-loving tree species like red pine, oak, birch, and aspen to grow back.

In the Forest Management Zone of the Sand Dunes, approximately 70 acres per year are identified for clearcutting and regenerating back to trees. That equates to about 700 acres over the 10 year span of the Anoka Sand Plains Subsection Plan. In some of these places, young white pine trees are already regenerating in the understory and will be preserved to the extent possible during harvest. In the Immediate Restoration Zone, there are approximately 170 acres of pine covertype that are planned for removal by 2022 and replacement with native ecosystems. Not all of these 170 acres will be clearcut; some are mixed pine-oak stands where the pine will be removed but the oaks will not, resulting in a more open oak woodland or savanna.

Q: Why can't we wait until the rare species need more room instead of clearing land and hoping they will expand? How much space is needed for rare species?

A: Unfortunately, while many rare species may be present in the Sand Dunes, their populations are not necessarily healthy and may not be resilient under increasing pressures like climate change and competition with invasive species. The DNR has determined that these species already need more room—as much as we are able to provide—in order to survive into the future.

Q: Will creating open dunes cause blowing sand as a nuisance to residents?

A: It is unlikely that the changes in the Sand Dunes will increase residents' problems with blowing sand. The 'open' dunes are generally small in size and covered in unique plants that require these dunes to grow.

Q: How will tree harvest impact the fragile dune system in the Sand Dunes?

A: Areas sensitive to disturbance are often left out of tree harvest areas entirely, or the season of operation may be restricted to frozen ground conditions. Hand management may also be used in certain situations, rather than heavy equipment, in order to protect sensitive habitats.

Q: Can we plant trees where large areas of diseased trees were taken out?

A: When trees are removed from State land due to diseases, we generally replant or reseed the area with an appropriate replacement tree species. In some instances, a small opening may be left to add structural diversity. If volunteers wish to help with the planting or furnish trees we would want to coordinate that ahead of time to avoid duplicating efforts. If someone has concerns about diseases spreading onto their land or has questions about what tree species may be best adapted to their situation, DNR Forestry would be happy to provide advice.

Ecological Questions:

Q: What tree species are native to SDSF?

A: Based on information that we have from Public Land Survey data, pollen records, and remnant native plant communities, the following tree species are likely native to the Sand Dunes:

  • In medium or high abundance: northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis), northern red oak (Quercus rubra), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), white oak (Quercus alba), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • In low abundance: basswood (Tilia americana), black cherry (Prunus serotina), red maple (Acer rubrum), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), big-tooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), American elm (Ulmus americana), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), tamarack (Larix laricina), ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)

While pine pollen has been found in lake sediments in the Sand Dunes, researchers believe that it may have drifted down from other regions (pollen is very light and can travel great distances). Red pine (Pinus resinosa) and jack pine (Pinus banksiana) are not known to be native to the Sand Dunes, and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), if present, was likely found in low abundance in areas that were protected from frequent fire.

Q: Why restore a portion of the Sand Dunes to resemble pre-European settlement days? Why not go back to pre-glacier days?

A: The glaciers that flowed over most of Minnesota approximately 10,000 years ago drastically changed our state's landscape, including the area that is now the Sand Dunes. The sand in the Sand Dunes was deposited by glaciers. The plant communities that grew up after the glaciers melted adapted to these new conditions over thousands of years. While the changes made by the glaciers are irreversible, we do have a choice about what we plant in the soils that the glaciers left behind. Transitioning some of the Sand Dunes back to native ecosystems provides more habitat for the plants and animals that have lived there for thousands of years.

Q: How will future climate changes impact the Sand Dunes under the proposed management?

A: According to climate models, some species of trees are projected to do better in the Sand Dunes under expected climate changes while some will do worse, due to changes in the availability of suitable habitat. The table below summarizes the expected impact to Sand Dunes tree species across the entire Anoka Sand Plain, under low and high future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Red pine, the most abundant plantation species in the Sand Dunes, is expected to decrease under the new climate regime, while white pine is expected to increase. Northern red oak and northern pin oak are expected to decrease, while bur oak—which was once the most common tree species in the Sand Dunes—is expected to remain steady, and white oak will increase.

The operational plan emphasizes increased species diversity in the forest management zone, which may help offset the expected loss of red pine. Further, the plan emphasizes bur oak as the target dominant tree species in the rare features management zones, especially in the savannas. This aligns with climate models as even under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario bur oak is not expected to be negatively impacted by climate change in the region.

For more information, consult:

  1. US Forest Service's Climate Change Tree Atlas
  2. Handler et al. 2014, "Minnesota Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis: A Report from the Northwoods Climate Change Response Framework Project". Information compiled by Clarence Turner, MNDNR Climate Change Specialist.

Sand Dunes State Forest Trees—Response to Climate Change across the Entire Anoka Sand Plain

Species name*

Predicted change low emissions scenario

Predicted change high emissions scenario

Northern red oak


Large Decrease

Quaking aspen

Large Decrease

Large Decrease

Bur oak

No Change

No Change

American Elm



Green ash

No Change

No Change


No Change

No Change

Black cherry


Large Decrease

Paper birch

Large Decrease

Large Decrease

Northern pin oak


Large Decrease

Red pine**


Large Decrease

Red maple




No Change

No Change

White oak

Large Increase


Eastern red cedar (juniper)

Large Increase

Large Increase

Jack pine**



White pine**



Big-toothed aspen

No Change

Large Decrease




White spruce**


No Change

*Listed in order of abundance, relative to other tree species across the entire Anoka Sand Plain.
**Not known to be native to the Sand Dunes State Forest; planted for timber

Q: What will be the impact to carbon storage from the proposed changes in management?

A: Carbon storage in forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems can be difficult to measure and it changes over time based on many factors, including type and age of the vegetation, and time since the last disturbance. Ecosystems store carbon above ground (in vegetation) and below ground (in soil and in plant roots). In general, forests tend to store more carbon above ground than grasslands, and grasslands tend to store more carbon below ground than forests. Forest carbon can also be stored over time in long-lived timber products such as buildings or furniture. Presumably, the above and below ground carbon storage potentials of oak savanna would be somewhere in between forests and grasslands, as it is a mix of the two.

Different forest types can store different amounts of carbon. However, data from the U.S. Forest Service tells us that in Minnesota, red pine forests and oak forests store about the same amount of total carbon per acre.

All things considered, it is unlikely that the management plan for the Sand Dunes will significantly alter the long-term carbon storage potential of the landscape.

Table: Comparative values for 'typical' carbon density in grassland and forests

Aboveground and live belowground C (t/acre)¹

Soil organic C (t/acre)²

Total (t/acre)

















Forest carbon date soucres table

(Notes on sources: These forest carbon data sources are specific to Minnesota forests, based on U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis Data; the grassland carbon data are not specific to Minnesota, and are instead based on global grasslands data from the scientific literature, including the IPCC and Oak Ridge National Laboratory; cropland data is from the IPCC; Peatland data from "The Potential for Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration in Minnesota, A Report to the Department of Natural Resources from the Minnesota Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration Initiative", February 2008. Information compiled by Clarence Turner, MNDNR Climate Change Specialist.)

Q: What would happen if we 'let nature take its course' in the Sand Dunes?

A: It's important to remember that certain aspects of the Sand Dunes are not 'natural'. For example, red pine plantations are not truly 'natural'. Red pine is not native to the Sand Dunes, and plantations tend to lack the structural and ecological diversity of natural red pine forests. Also, there are many non-native invasive species (like buckthorn) that impact the Sand Dunes. If humans stopped managing the Sand Dunes and trying to remove invasive species, those forest pests might take over and make it hard for native plants to grow.

Q: Are the desired native plant communities in the plan represented adequately throughout the landscape already?

A: While some neighboring landowners, such as the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, have made great strides toward restoring rare oak savanna ecosystems, the truth is that this progress is a 'drop in the bucket' compared to what has been lost. Midwestern United States oak savanna is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world—only 0.02% remained of the pre-European settlement ecosystem after agriculture swept through the Heartland. If you were to think of all the former oak savanna in the Midwest as a football field, that would mean only about 11.5 square feet survived—an area smaller than a picnic table. So while other restoration efforts are important, we must all work together to bring back this rare ecosystem to the landscape.

(Source: Nuzzo, V. 1986 Extent and Status of Midwest Oak Savanna: Presettlement and 1985. natural Areas Journal 6(2):6-36.)

Q: How will herbicides be used in SDSF and are they safe (e.g. for humans, wildlife, water table)? Are there alternatives to using herbicide to combat invasive species?

A: Herbicide application is one of the most effective and cost-effective means of controlling invasive plants like buckthorn. When applying pesticides, the department follows very specific requirements that adhere to Forest Stewardship Council standards (which prohibits the use of pesticides that are known to contaminate groundwater and cause cancer). Labels are always followed. More information can be found on the Forest Stewardship Council's pesticides webpage. Spot-spraying is the most common method of pesticide application used in the Sand Dunes.

There are pros and cons to using herbicide-free methods. Some invasive plants may be controlled by mechanically pulling or hand-pulling plants. These methods avoid herbicides, but can be more expensive and more disruptive to the soil because it requires removing the entire root, or the plant can re-sprout. Grazing animals has also been shown as an effective means of controlling invasive species in some instances, but it can also be expensive and difficult to manage. Grazing requires moveable energized fencing, corrals, water tanks, and contractors with the expertise and animal stock to accomplish results. Furthermore, grazing animals also eat native trees and shrubs, which may jeopardize rare species recovery in the Sand Dunes. Biological controls (such as insects) can be very successful in certain cases, but unfortunately are not available for all invasive species, including buckthorn. Cultural treatments can be useful as well—such as providing boot brushes and educational signage to visitors to help prevent the future spread of invasive species.

Q: Exactly how many acres of pine, oak woodland, oak savanna, prairie, wetlands, and other ecosystems will be in the Sand Dunes in the future, according to the plan? How does that compare to today?

A: The operational plan divides the state's approximately 5800 acres in the Sand Dunes into five zones: 1) long-term forest management (~3,000 acres), 2) Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area (~625 acres), 3) immediate rare features management (~500 acres), 4) eventual rare features management (~1350 acres), and 5) Bob Dunn Recreation Area, which will have a mix of long-term forest management, immediate rare features management, and eventual rare features management (~325 acres). Including the portion of the Recreation Area that will be managed for rare features, about 2000 acres of the Sand Dunes are planned for transition to rare features management over the next 50 years.

The transition to rare features management will result in some changes in the Sand Dunes. However, much of the rare features zone is already dominated by oak trees, not conifer plantation, so only a portion of these acres will require big changes in land cover type. DNR will be using a variety of management techniques to restore native oak woodlands and savanna, and small amounts of prairie where appropriate. This will involve very little change in net acres of oak woodland, about 800 acres net increase in oak savanna (with small amounts of prairie), and about 700 acres net decrease in plantation forests, mostly in the south unit of the Sand Dunes.

The table below summarizes the approximate net proposed changes to the Sand Dunes landscape (in acres) at the end of the 50-year implementation period (approx. year 2063)

Land Cover Type

North Unit (net change in acres)

South Unit (net change in acres)

Total (net change in acres)

open water




wetland grass/brush




wetland forest (ash and tamarack)




non-oak dominated forest (aspen or other hardwood)




oak woodland/forest1








plantation forests3




  1. CURRENT acres calculated from DNR's Forest Inventory Module's 'oak dominant' type and FUTURE acres calculated from predicted 30m resolution Native Plant Community model (FDs37)
  2. CURRENT acres calculated from DNR's Forest Inventory Module's 'offsite oak' type and FUTURE acres calculated from predicted 30m resolution Native Plant Community model (UPs14)
  3. Plantation forests include the following covertypes: white pine, red pine, jack pine, scotch pine, white spruce, Norway spruce, upland tamarack, upland northern white cedar, hybrid poplar

Q: What is in an 'oak woodland' and 'oak savanna'?

A: Oak woodlands and savannas are diverse ecosystems that are native to the Sand Dunes State Forest and surrounding landscape, called the Anoka Sand Plain. Oak woodlands are defined as containing 50-70% tree canopy cover, with up to 100% cover in certain spots. Oak savannas are more sparsely tree-covered, containing 5-50% canopy cover. The most prevalent trees in these ecosystems are oak species (bur, white, northern red, and northern pin), but other native tree species are found as well, such as aspen, black cherry, ash, maple, basswood, and eastern red-cedar, as well as a wide variety of native grasses, sedges, and forbs (flowers).

Q: How much of the forest will be replanted after harvesting?

A: State law and our Forest Certification standards require that DNR regenerate forests (either through natural regrowth or planting) after we harvest. Exceptions are allowed when implementing a plan that calls for regenerating native landscapes (to wetland, savanna, prairie, etc.), as in the case of the proposed Operational Management Plan. However, in the majority of SDSF, DNR will still regenerate or plant trees after harvest. Tree species and density will vary based on the goals for each stand.

Q: Can the DNR accomplish its goals in the Sand Dunes by using selective tree harvest and multi-age tree management only?

A: Selective cutting is a tool that foresters most often use to prepare a stand for final harvest, or to manage for shade tolerant species (such as maple, basswood, and white pine). However, sun-loving tree species like oak, red pine, aspen, and birch need bigger openings to regenerate a new forest, similar to the results of a large wildfire or windstorm. Selective cutting is not an ideal method to use in areas of the Sand Dunes where DNR is trying to regenerate these types of trees.

However, selective cutting and thinning will be used in certain places in the Sand Dunes to improve timber production in the timber management zone, as well as certain areas in the rare features management zones to remove pine and leave mature native hardwoods such as bur oak, northern pin oak and black cherry.

Q: What impacts will the operational plan's proposed management have on the deer population in the Sand Dunes?

A: The proposed management identified in the operational plan will provide a mosaic of pine forest, oak woodlands, and oak savanna, favoring wildlife species such as deer that prefer a variety of habitats and the "edge" between them for foraging. Herbaceous vegetation and shrubs will provide summer browse while acorns provide an important fall and winter food source. The Sand Dunes is located in the forest/prairie transition zone, one of the most productive areas for deer in the state. Deer populations are regulated through hunting seasons and specific harvest regulations set annually for each deer permit area in Minnesota. The identified desired future conditions at Sand Dunes is not expected to negatively impact local deer populations. Conversely, this will be a shift to high-quality native habitat that will benefit deer.

Socio-Economic Information Needs:

Q: Can prescribed burning be done safely considering the residential nature of surrounding areas?

A: A combination of adequate fire breaks, adequate trained personnel, and adequate equipment, as well as the dryness of fuels, wind speed, and relative humidity all interact to provide a window for safe burning. The timing of the burn in relation to current weather conditions is especially important to ensure safe burning. Each prescribed burn has the desired weather conditions listed—such as wind speed and direction, temperatures, and relative humidity—and the burns can only be conducted within these specific parameters.

Q: How will DNR pay for the management changes in Sand Dunes?

A: Management costs will be covered through a variety of funding sources, including the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, Invasive Species Grants, and other grants and partners. Additionally, timber sales will be used for restoration.

Q: How many campers use the SDSF each year?

A: There are two areas within the Sand Dunes State Forest that offer camping opportunities: the Ann Lake Campground and the Bob Dunn Horse Camp. Information is collected on number of registrations by campsite. In 2015, there were about 1,700 registrations at the Ann Lake Campground and about 140 at the Horse Campground. These numbers do not reflect the number of individuals for each campsite registered.

Q: Can private folks do volunteer work on public lands?

A: Yes, the DNR has an active volunteer program. For information about our volunteer program, visit our volunteer webpage. Projects need to be coordinated with the local site manager. Some activities like the operation of chain saws may be limited.