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Two Harbors Spruce Budworm Forestry Project

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NRCS and SWCD Spruce Budworm project in Two Harbors, Minnesota to clean up dead balsam and release hardwoods.

ST. PAUL, MINN, Oct. 13, 2022 - In Summer 2022 the National Resources Conservation Service, in partnership with the North St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District, started an Environmental Quality Incentives Program forestry project West of Two Harbors Minnesota. The project’s goal was to clear dead balsam trees that were caused by spruce budworm.

The eastern spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) is a native forest insect of concern across Minnesota’s coniferous forests. Spruce budworm is responsible for defoliating and/or killing vast acreages of balsam fir and spruce annually in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, budworm activity has been observed every year since at least 1954, representing an endemic budworm population for over 60 years. Budworm outbreaks in Minnesota typically occur in the same area every 25 to 40 years.

The landowner, Jordan Blessing, reached out to Josh Hull, owner of Hull Forest Products in Duluth, Minnesota, who was working with a neighbor on a similar Natural Resources Conservation Service project in 2021. Hull said the landowner approached my team because he liked the work we were doing and wanted to do the same on his land. “We had him contact NRCS in order to get the process started,” Hull added.

The reasons why a landowner would want dead balsam and spruce out of an area are because dead trees are a fire hazard and they can fall at any time. Hull said, “these are essentially acres and acres of dead Christmas trees, and they can light easily and burn intensely.” Another issue that comes into play with the dead trees, they can hinder growth under the tree canopy and a landowner can end up with a stagnant forest.

August 2021 a lightning storm started the Greenwood Fire, which isn’t too far from Jordan Blessing’s property. “Northeast of here is where the Greenwood Fire took place and a large part of that fire is all of the poorly managed forest and dead balsam,” Hull said. The fire was named for the nearby Greenwood Lake, which is roughly 20 miles Northwest of Silver Bay. Superior National Forests stated the final fire acre size was 26,797 acres and took nearly three months and more than $21 million to get the fire under control and extinguish it. Hull added, “a lot of these places where we have mulched around landowners houses these are places that are going to create small firebreaks…it is really important to keep those dead fuels from the places we live”

Hull, who has been doing this specialized forestry work for six years, has modified forestry equipment specifically for projects like this one. The equipment was chosen because of the steep hilly terrain. For this project he used an excavator with a mulching head and a Vermeer skid steerer, also with a mulching head. Hull said, “these machines are specifically built for doing mulching work.” Both machines complement each other and can-do things the other machine can’t.

The machines can take standing trees and downed trees and turn them into mulch. Hull said, “we can take anything from small brush all the way to a tree that is 12 inches or larger in diameter and turn it into mulch by working from the top down and cleaning up what is on the ground.” This method is very effective at reducing fire risk. It takes a lot of heat to get a standing green tree to light on fire.

The number one goal for this project is to get rid of the fire hazard. Beth Kleinke, District Conservationist in Virginia, Minnesota, said, “I have done a lot of projects using similar processes, but the mulcher is by far the most efficient.” Coarser debris will help the new growth in the forest. Smaller pieces tend to lock up nitrogen and change topsoil. Kleinke added, “projects like this are important because of the fire hazard and forest health.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as the Soil and Water Conservation Districts assist with Environmental Quality Incentive Program related projects, give technical expertise, and write forest practice plans so they can see what resource concerns there are and how to fix them. Zach Evans, North St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District Regional Farm Bill Forester said, “Helping People Help the Land is the motto [as well as] Keeping Forested Lands Forested.”

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