We were driving up the North Shore, my future wife and I, on the way to Grand Marais. The coho salmon were hitting in Lake Superior, and we had left Duluth before dawn, eager to get fishing.
Somewhere near Gooseberry Falls State Park, the sun peeked over the big lake and shone through the windshield. As I turned briefly away, toward the forest that sprawls up the hill away from the lake, I first noticed them: Hundreds of dead birch trees with no leaves, branches missing, their stark white trunks contrasted against a sea of tall grass. The scene didn't look natural, didn't look right. It looked like the forest was dying. We saw more dead birch, and not many young trees, all along the way.
That trip was in the summer of 1989. Later I learned that much of the North Shore forest was dying. Not only was the forest along Highway 61 different from how we remembered it during two decades of traveling up and down the shore, it was different than it had ever been before. And now, 25 years later, the problem has grown worse.
"There are places along the shore where, when you look up the hill, all you see are dying birch being replaced by brush and grass," says Dave Ingebrigtsen, assistant area wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Marais. "You can go miles without seeing many young conifers growing."
Go back 150 years and big white pine, white spruce, and white cedar dominated the North Shore forest where woodland caribou lived. The landscape had far less birch and aspen, less grass, and few, if any, white-tailed deer. Remnant pockets of that forest persist in a few places, such as remote areas of state parks. Yet much of the forest has been changed by logging, fires, disease, and development of homesteads, lodges, townhomes, and roads—as well as proliferation of white-tailed deer.
The North Shore Forest Collaborative is trying to plan and plant the forest of the future, using the coniferous forest of 150 years ago as a guide. The collaborative, which began in 2011, includes local landowners, public land managers, and nonprofit conservation groups. The group coordinates public and private efforts, shares expertise, seeks grants, and spreads the word about restoring the forest. The restoration work focuses on the strip of land that reaches about 3 miles inland from Lake Superior's shore and from Knife River northeast of Duluth to Grand Portage near the Canadian border—an estimated 270,000 acres.
The DNR is working in state parks and other state lands to improve habitat by planting and protecting long-lived conifers, especially red and white pines and white spruce. Superior National Forest, with its North Shore Restoration Project, is planting white spruce, cedar, and pine, as well as pockets of tamarack and yellow birch, across land it manages in the area. Cook and Lake counties and the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe have joined the collaborative, as have county and federal conservation services, by planting or offering expertise.
Public land managers can't solve the problem alone, because nearly 75 percent of the North Shore forest is private property. Much of it is in 2- to 20-acre parcels owned by hundreds of different people. Although this has complicated restoration efforts, the collaborative has attracted dozens of landowners. And organizers are looking for more.
"It's a slow process. But we're trying to get as many people involved as possible," says Molly Thompson, executive director of Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association. Founded in 1993 to protect and restore Sugarloaf Cove near Schroeder, the association has expanded its focus to the whole North Shore. Since 2004 Sugarloaf's Lost Forest program has been educating landowners about the problem and showing them how to plant and protect trees. Landowners have planted thousands of trees across hundreds of acres.
Intensive logging on the North Shore began in the late 1800s. Loggers took the big pines and left a tangle of branches and woody debris. This slash made perfect fuel for wildfires. While much of Minnesota's forest historically burned every 50 to 100 years, the North Shore's cooler, wetter forest had mostly avoided widespread fire for a millennium.
"What we see now along the North Shore is the result of a 100-year process. It started when the loggers and settlers came and cleared the land," says Chel Anderson, a DNR plant ecologist and botanist in Grand Marais. "The fires were unusually hot and intense. They were catastrophic to the ecosystem that had developed there for hundreds of years without that kind of fire. The birch and the grass that we see now are artifacts of those fires."
Birch seeds blew in from distant trees and thrived on the burned-over land. Native Canada bluejoint grass spread across the landscape. Then, as mature pine forest gave way to young, second-growth forest, white-tailed deer displaced caribou.
Mark White, a Duluth-based forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, describes the forest's changes as a series of events. "Part of it is the seed source was gone for the big conifers. And the birch and the grass really conspired to prevent white pine and other species from reclaiming their place. But the expansion of deer into the area just about guaranteed that the original forest wasn't coming back."
By the 1930s deer were a dominant force. Moreover, deer in the region developed a unique migration pattern that continues today. In winter, deer far inland from Lake Superior head to the warmer, less snowy, south-facing hillsides near the lake. In these deeryards, populations can now swell from dozens to 100 deer per square mile. "It's only for a few months," says White, "but the areas where they congregate really get hammered."
Since the 1980s White's research has documented the profound impact of deer on the landscape. In areas protected by 10-foot-high fencing, where deer couldn't get in, researchers found lush new growth of pines, cedars, and other plants regenerating on the forest floor after just a few years. Vegetation was so thick, White notes, that it was hard to see into the forest, let alone walk through it. Outside the fences researchers found almost no white pine or cedar regeneration. Fewer broadleaf plants were growing.
"We're approaching nine decades of deer over-browsing along parts of the North Shore, and the ecosystem has been permanently altered by it," White says. "The species deer prefer, like white pine and white cedar, simply don't regenerate. The species they generally avoid, like spruce, thrive. The forest has changed based on what deer like to eat. It's less diverse; not just trees but also plants [in] the understory. Deer have a cascading impact on the entire ecosystem—plants, insects, even birds."
Even in areas that still have large, remnant white pine and cedar, deer have prevented the understory from developing naturally. White says any serious forest restoration will require far fewer deer in the area. That means allowing hunters to take more deer and changing forest management practices to discourage deer, namely promoting more old trees and less of the young forest deer prefer.
"It's going to be a struggle because some people want a lot of deer, and that's in conflict with restoration," White says. "The people who want more conifers are going to have to be just as loud as those who want more deer."
The DNR's Ingebrigtsen agrees deer have a big impact. That's why he's planting white pine and white cedar in wildlife management areas along the North Shore and then building fences to keep hungry whitetails out. He says the DNR has reduced deer numbers along the shore. In deer permit area 126 in the state's northeastern corner, for example, the DNR's goal is a 27 percent reduction from 2005 deer populations—from nearly six deer per square mile in spring to four. The DNR has allowed hunters to shoot more antlerless deer and has offered more opportunities to hunt in North Shore state parks. Those moves, coupled with a few severe winters, have reduced deer numbers to fewer than four per square mile this year, according to computer models.
The DNR will seek public input in 2015 to revisit deer population goals along the North Shore. The state's plan for moose in northeastern Minnesota also calls for lower whitetail densities.
"We're working on the deer numbers. We're doing tree planting and protection," Ingebrigtsen says. "A lot of areas can be helped, but it's a long-term investment. You might have to protect a white pine for 10 years and a cedar for 15 years to keep the deer away. It's expensive. It's a lot of work."
We can have both deer and a restored forest, Ingebrigtsen says, but it won't happen overnight: "It's taken 100 years to get that way, and it's going to take time to change it back. It takes a long time to grow a white pine into the canopy, and the landscape needing restoration is vast. It's more than a lifetime of work."
One Tree at a Time.
Birches that sprouted after early 20th century fires reached old age in the 1980s. They started to die in large numbers, hurried along at times by drought, disease, and insects. Birch seedlings cannot take root in the thick carpet of grass along much of the shore. Over the past 25 years, dead birch have become the most glaring sign of the larger problem.
"If we don't do something, the North Shore is going to be nothing but dead birch and grass. It's going to be a pretty scrubby forest," says Mike Monten. He and his wife, Rosanne, own and care for 9 acres along Lake Superior. "Every year I cut down a dozen or more dead birch on my little piece of land. Expand that out to the whole North Shore and you get a sense of the magnitude of the problem."
Monten is active in the collaborative and serves on the Sugarloaf board. "When I first got involved, I had hoped we could save the old birch forest," he says. "But now I know that's not going happen. That's not the forest that should be here."
Government agencies can provide guidance, but managing only 25 percent of the land, they can't solve the problem, Monten says. "This is going to be the little guy like me who owns 8 or 10 acres and who pays attention to how to get their land back on track." His family has been planting a few conifers each year. He cuts back grass near trees and keeps young white pines protected in wire cages until they are tall enough to survive hungry deer. He is experimenting with planting maple and oak, and he has planted some white and black spruce that the deer don't eat.
"The last time I was up there I looked out the window and there were seven deer standing out there. It looked like they were drooling trying to figure out how to get at my white pines," he says. "It's a challenge. We're making some headway. Education is big right now. We need to have more people know what's happening up here."
Because conifers do a better job of holding soil in place, slowing runoff, and protecting water quality than the fading birch forest, Monten says the restoration effort could improve trout habitat in the many streams that run through this forest into Lake Superior.
"I'm a fly fisherman, and guess what? The forest affects the streams. So, yeah, I want to see this forest restored," he says. "People caused this change to occur 100 years ago, and now we're suffering the consequences. But we can help restore it too."
The DNR's Chel Anderson has been studying North Shore flora for 30 years. She was involved early on with the restoration effort and now serves on the technical committee providing guidance to collaborative members. She urges landowners to restore not just native tree species but also native understory plants. And she cautions them to keep a watchful eye on invasive species of plants, animals, and insects. A warming climate will play a role in deciding the eventual winners and losers in the future forest.
"It's daunting. There has been so much change across so much of this area. We're never going to return it to, say, the forest of 1800. But we can take steps to restore some of that ecosystem—not just the trees but the understory plants—to provide functional habitat for native species," Anderson says. "This North Shore area is so appreciated, not just by the people who live here, but statewide and beyond. And that gives me some hope that if restoration on this scale can be done anywhere, it's here."
Anderson urges conservation of the North Shore's legacy conifer stands. "Conservation is so much easier and less expensive than restoration," she says.