In the early 1800's, the forests surrounding the Great Lakes in the northern Midwest region of the United States were dominated by enormous white pines. By the close of the 19th century, most of these white pine forests had been cleared by aggressive loggers with little or no experience in forest management. Other species of trees like aspen began to flourish in the spaces where the white pines once grew, and the forests of the Midwestern states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were changed forever. Today, the U.S. Forest Service manages the national forests in those states in ways that help the aspen thrive. Now, some environmental groups would like to see the forests returned to their natural state… and one group is taking the issue to court.
This patch of land in Michigan's Huron-Manistee National Forest was clear-cut last year. That means all the aspen trees were cut down, fed into a chipper, and hauled away to make particleboard and paper. All that was left was a wide-open field. A dense stubble of new growth is already emerging from the snow, though, a forest recreating itself.
But here's what bothers Marv Roberson, a forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club: nearly all of the new trees are aspens. "You can see coming up, aspen -- that's most of it less than a year old, some of it's three feet [one meter] tall already. And since it comes from root suckers, what it's done is it's gotten a head start on all the competition. So next summer when all these little trees have their leaves out, the floor of what used to be a forest and will be again, will have shade on it," he says. "And so a lot of the smaller trees that want to come up from seeds that didn't get a chance this summer won't be able to."
Aspens are known as a "pioneer species." Whenever there's a major disturbance - a fire, a tornado, or clear-cut - aspens recover quickly. And they take over, squeezing out any other species that might try to grow there. Mr. Roberson says he doesn't believe that would happen nearly as often if the forests weren't clear-cut. He says the aspens would eventually grow old, die and fall down. And then, in the absence of a major disturbance, the white pines would thrive again.
It's enough of an issue that the [environmental group, the] Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit against the United States Forest Service. The group is asking that the Forest Service do a study to analyze the long-term effects of clear-cutting aspen on federal land. In the meantime, they're asking for a moratorium on aspen logging in certain parts of the national forests.
"The reason for our lawsuit is not to stop the harvesting of aspen," says Mr. Roberson. "The reason for the lawsuit is to get the forest service to do an analysis of what the effects are. We're right now going through the biggest forest experiment in North American history. We're altering the kinds of forests that we have and we don't know what the long term results are."
The lawsuit has suddenly raised the stakes in what has been an ongoing discussion about the future of the National Forests. Every ten to fifteen years, the Forest Service creates a new management plan for each National Forest in the Great Lakes region. The discussion often involves representatives from environmental organizations, wildlife preservation groups and timber companies. But it rarely ends up in court. Forest Service officials are not allowed to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.
But Regional Planner Sam Emmons says any decisions on forest planning involve a lot of thought, foresight and input from the public. "The Forest Service is looking for a diversity of timber species and diversity of wildlife habitats and understands that whatever transitions that are made have some effect on the local sawmills and pulp mills and the folks who live up in the North Woods [region of the United States]."
The forests are an important part of life in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The federal government estimates that logging and forest-related activities annually contribute nearly $30 billion to the economies of just those three states. For many of those who live in the region, logging is what pays the bills.
Jim Schmierer of Michigan Technological University's Forestry Program says residents in the Upper Great Lakes forests approach issues about the forests with a blend of intelligence, experience and passion. "Maybe grandpa was a logger or they've been managing a family woodlot for fifty years and so there's a real strong connection to the land in a lot of cases up here with people who are very familiar with forest practices," he says. "So it's kind of unique, a much different situation than some in the West, so definitely an interesting dynamic here."
For that reason, the Sierra Club lawsuit has created some resentment among those who make their living from logging aspen. John Lamy is President of the Timber Producers Association of Michigan and Wisconsin. He says the Forest Service's management plans involve a lot of public input and compromise.
He says he doesn't understand why the Sierra Club had to get the courts involved. "I just feel that since everybody had a chance to participate in the plan and develop the plan and that plan has been approved that we should allow that process to go forward and the Sierra Club is choosing to go through the courts to change a major part of that plan," he says.
Marv Roberson of the Sierra Club says his group has been trying to work within the system. But he says the Forest Service isn't getting the message. So the lawsuit is simply a last resort. In the end, the Sierra Club may be getting its way even without the lawsuit. Since the 1960's the aspen population in the upper Great Lakes has actually declined. Mr. Roberson acknowledges this and offers this analogy: If a patient's temperature goes from one hundred five degrees to one hundred three degrees, he might be getting better. But he's still sick.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation.