Perspective: Missed opportunities

When you live in a particular place for a number of years I think it is very easy to take your landscape for granted. You don’t notice subtle changes and therefore assume everything remains the same. But how much do we really look, how much do we really notice? For me, looking at the forest began with a few words from my grandma when I was a ten year old boy. I was lucky enough to experience the quintessential “family cabin” in Northern Minnesota, which was situated on a small lake surrounded by the typical “North Woods” landscape of Pine, Birch, Aspen, Maple and Oak. My Grandma, a Swedish immigrant, loved to tell anyone who would listen what Minnesota’s Northern landscape used to consist of and she found an enthusiastic student in me who loved listening to her stories of towering pines lining the lakeshores of this region. She also told me following the fires post logging that our landscape filled in with brush and what foresters call “second-growth timber”, fir, spruce, aspen, birch, maple and oak , these trees were already present they were just more suppressed do to fire. In her orderly Scandinavian mind the forest was unkempt and needed help, and that mindset has stayed with me to this day.

Well, many years have passed and I have learned many things about all of the different “ecosystems” that our state consists of, and how vastly different they all are. But I still look our forested lands with a critical eye; Are there “old-growth” trees? Which is “second-growth” timber? Which are the pioneer species? Which is underbrush, and what kind? If you look at the forest like that you start to see it differently and envision what the land can become instead of what it is. I cannot pass by a small parcel of land near my home in Scott County, without doing an instant assessment of the forested parcels I see. And what do I see; Many old-growth Oak tracts overgrown with brush and more shade-tolerant lesser quality trees, choking out the forest. What does this mean? The oaks ain’t comin back folks! Are those other trees worthless? No, but they exist for a reason as a climax species, all a part of nature to heal and cover. But with a little help you can manage the forest to exist in a more valuable state for years to come and enjoy the process along the way.

There are definitely those who prefer a hands-off approach to managing their forestlands, and I believe if they know the consequences of their action there is nothing further that need be said, it’s their land let them do as they wish. But I do have a plea for consideration; thinning less valuable trees, clearing brush and even planting more valuable site appropriate seedlings is not only an investment in the future but a responsibility and my own personal bias. However, using the “hands-off” approach one risks a weaker, mono-culture forest where pioneer species take over the land. This method is not sustainable; it’s less valuable and more disease-prone, where the end result is an unattractive, less valuable forest, both from a timber sale perspective but also an aesthetic one. I use a piece of land my wife and her brother formerly owned in Pine County, MN. as an example; They had approximately 4 acres of mixed hardwoods but the trees were growing so close to each other they were fighting for space and sunlight allowing them to grow 40’ tall but only 6” in diameter. To them it was normal this is the north-woods, it didn’t even register with them but the minute I saw it I was ecstatic; I had a project! After many weekends of venturing up to thin trees and brush the land, the comments were of surprise and renewal. Over managed? Maybe, but I took an inventory, planned for diversity and made sure healthy seed-trees remained reproductive, left some dead standing and dead-fall trees for wildlife, while keeping the “weed” trees to a minimum. I also added in a bit of diversity by planting birches and white pines on the periphery and understory.

It is my opinion that one needs to look at our forests from a historical perspective where fire was a major component and see the effects it had on our pre-settlement forests. I would leave those landowners with food for thought; being a woodland landowner isn’t a passive recreational pursuit, it’s a responsibility to stewardship for future generations

Our biggest challenge with managing these forests is education. Education would tell us “look what we have here, see how valuable this is”. What I mean is I don’t think the general populace has learned to look at a landscape critically, i.e. trees are “woods”, and that’s a good thing, right? Yes, but what kind? Are they valuable as timber or for habitat or both? How about aesthetics and recreation? These are all things to consider.

I happen to have a harsh take on our forested lands in Minnesota, I think they are in dismal shape, under-stocked and they are not near what they could be. I see empty parcels waiting for trees, I see choked-out, overcrowded, brushy parcels waiting for help to become more valuable, more aesthetically pleasing, I see poorly-stocked parcels lacking old-growth seed-trees for the future. This may sound negative but in reality it’s very positive because ultimately I see what the forest can be, not what it currently is.

And as I see it the biggest problem is lack of educating the public about ownership of their ecosystem. I don’t know who would be responsible so I will say “we all are”. When we see a pile of green it doesn’t always make it a forest. In the absence of fire, management is our responsibility, ultimately the owner’s responsibility. So how do we educate? As with many issues “preaching to the choir” seems to be the method of approach and everyone nods in agreement because they already know the information and agree, but what have we accomplished there? I think preaching to those not in the choir should be our goal, perhaps contacting landowner’s forested county by forested county with helpful information and updates could be a start. There’s no shortage of ways to contact one another these days, perhaps that’s a start.


Steve Goodwin

Prior Lake, MN

Steve Goodwin lives in Prior Lake, MN.  We welcome your perspective on Minnesota woodlands as well.  Send your thoughts or inquiries to  

The University of Minnesota Extension Forestry team.

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