Should There be Hope for Our Future Forest?

East of Ely by David Krikorian

I kept my eye on the horizon throughout the afternoon, watching a purple cloud line close in from the northwest. I sensed that something bad was about to unfold. We reached camp at around 5:00 in the afternoon. The canoe party I was guiding was blissfully unaware of the approaching storm. I urged them to spread out their tents as far from trees as the campsite permitted. The day had been calm and balmy, far from what was about to occur.
We were camped on Pickerel Lake near the northeast edge of Quetico Park in mid-August 1978, twenty-one years before the Great Blowdown of July 4th, 1999. The people in my party had a hard time responding to my urgent advice to use heavy boulders and Bungees to secure the corners of their tents in the evening lull before the storm.
I still carry the image of my brother clutching the center pole of our Gerry Camponaire tent, as the tempest nearly flattened us. Ours was the only tent that stood after the storm passed. We were all lucky that the trees in the camp were too young to do severe harm, though a falling balsam poplar did crush the corner of one tent.
In 1978, reports of the intensity of such a severe storm were sketchy at best. Lucky to be alive, all we learned after was that several tornados had been spotted throughout the park and that one person had to be evacuated after a nearby lightning strike had rendered him blind.
That storm was the first of several disasters to hit the border country in the decades to follow. The blowdowns of 1999 and 2016, the more recent Pagami and Ham Lake fires were to destroy over one-tenth of the BWCA, not to mention the tree damage done by blight and insects.
Nowadays it’s hard to digest some of the harsh news about the causes and effects of what’s happening to our forest, harder still to discern some form of hope amid the ongoing changes.
I’ve read story after story, some with images as far ranging as a panorama of a treeless savanna-like future. Many of us have learned about the encroachment of the southern trees about to replace our birches, tamaracks and jack pines. How can anyone rely on such a sad scenario of what’s to come? After that storm in 1978, such apprehension gnawed away at me like a spruce borer. It hasn’t helped to read about so many predictions of our future. Yet by the grace of outrageous fortune, a thread of hope has emerged out of this conjecture.
One theory points out that our notion of a true forest is dead wrong. That the presence of countless trees is in fact harmful to nature, especially where northern conifers steal all the nutrients and growing space away from more edible plants like fruit-bearing trees and grasses that can sustain a much stronger ecological balance between flora and fauna. Some experts say such sustainability is dependent in part on human interaction.
Now that’s interesting, especially when I remember reading early European accounts of the virgin tree canopy that covered the country from the Atlantic coast clear to the Mississippi River. It turns out that the natives were much smarter at knowing how to maintain an ecological balance by controlling the forest with fire, which makes sense as their existence depended on such measures. They understood the human role in nature, especially how hunting helped maintain the health of grazing herds.
This notion has helped me to believe that human beings do indeed have a role in the scheme of life. When I combine this belief to another emerging proposition centered on the reality of things to come (not as they were), my hope returns.
You see the forest of the pre-logging era was always in a state of change. Even as recently as a few thousand years ago the so-called northwoods was a far cry different in respect to the species of trees and other plant life that exists today. This idea is gaining traction especially in Minnesota where a treasure trove of comprehensive records remains intact from the last two hundred years.
The plain truth is that southern hardwoods have and will be encroaching. Many of our northern tree species lay precariously on the southern edge of a retreating boreal forest. Be it climate change or the flux of our interglacial period in time, this new idea of forest restoration and maintenance demands we change our ideas of what to replant and where.
Here’s why this new notion gives me promise. Thirty years ago I visited Banning State Park some 150 miles south of Ely. Back then the park looked a lot like the mess of half-dead birches and bug infested conifers we have up here today.
You should see the place now. The mix of more southern species of maple and oak is apparent. Yet thanks to the proper management of good forestry the park has become a paradise of sorts.
Even though I may not be here to witness a similar resurgence in the Boundary Waters, I am able to anticipate the future of a healthy forest despite the storms, fires and pestilence I have witnessed, understanding how it was my straw in life to exist during a period of inevitable change.