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Lake County considers flexing its timber sales
Photo: It can cost a half-million dollars or more today to purchase equipment needed to enter the logging business. Foresters worry there could be a lack of loggers as veterans of the trade retire.
When Verso closed down its paper mill in Sartell, Minn., following a 2012 fire, it not only ended a century of paper making in the small town, but also closed an important avenue for Northeastern Minnesota loggers. The Sartell mill allowed for a greater percentage of balsam per truckload than most mills, which has affected the market statewide. Most county and state timber sale contracts require clear-cutting, leaving the area free for new growth, or for replanting with chosen species. When the Sartell mill was closed, eliminating a larger buyer of balsam fir, loggers were stuck with clear-cut agreements, creating financial hardships.
Now, Lake County is considering adjustments to sales permits that contain balsam. The county is following the DNR’s lead in easing up on clear cut expectations for loggers. Permits could be modified so that balsam does not have to be cut on a particular sale.
“This proposal could keep balsam from getting in the way of forest management.” said Lake County Land Commissioner Nate Eide.
The county wants balsam cut for silviculture reasons, one of those being the spruce budworm, a destructive insect species that has made its appearance in Lake County timber stands. At this point, Eide said there is a serious outbreak of the budworm in southeastern Lake County near Knife River, greatly affecting the balsam fir. The budworm kills it, leaving behind combustible material that could feed a wildfire. Balsam also tends to crowd out wood species that are more desirable for logging and forest vigor. Eide said that the DNR and St. Louis County already are working with current logging contracts to be more flexible on balsam harvesting, with the hope that making it an optional species for harvest will cushion the loss of revenue loggers are experiencing.
The logging industry has been struggling for years. As digital media expands and companies increasingly go paperless, paper demand is dropping.
Legislation in 2013 allows the DNR to provide relief for holders of DNR timber sales contracts that contain balsam requirements. Typically required to clear-cut tracts owned by the state, loggers have been given some reprieve for permits that have at least 50 cords of balsam fir, although permit holders can be required to fell and pile it. The piled balsam is often subjected to controlled burning to eliminate a source of wildfire fuel.
Total 2013 revenue for loggers in Lake County came close to $290,000, counting the earnings that logging companies made for their harvested timber at mills. Most of those companies are “mom and pop” operators; few have multiple crews.
One small harvester in Lake County has witnessed many changes during the quarter century he has been in the business. He is not surprised that fewer and fewer young people are choosing logging as a career. Kevin Kallinen, a resident of Silver Bay, says that while he feels his chosen profession is the right one for him, there are good reasons that others are staying away.
“I started with nothing other than a will to make it. Now, 25 years later, I don’t think I’ve made it,” he said.
Kallinen cites the lack of affordable health insurance, retirement savings and an ongoing struggle to make ends meet as evidence for the unpredictable nature of logging. Last year, in the space of three months, he dealt with unexpected equipment repairs that added more than $10,000 in costs. Essentially self-employed and owning all of his equipment, Kallinen occasionally hires extra help to complete a job, but never gives up his 60 to 70 hour work week. Foresters also are concerned about the lack of new loggers entering the field.
“We need them for healthy forest management,” said Eide. With an aging workforce, and a significant number of the region’s loggers nearing retirement age, Eide thinks young people in the region are more likely to work in the mining industry, where they are likely to find a bigger and more consistent paycheck.
As expectations from state and county government grow, loggers make less money, Kallinen said.
“I am all for taking care of the environment and sustainable logging,” he explained, “but some timber contracts expect more work for less money.” One example is a requirement attached to some timber sales requiring loggers to drive over any existing brush to improve the moose habitat. That extra work, Kallinen said, is something for which loggers are not adequately compensated.
The current issue with balsam is an illustration of how Eide sees the government management of natural resources relying on private industry. With older growth aspen forests in decline, and balsam stands as ready tinder, the loggers have come to play a critical role in managing the forest to create the type of environment deemed best.
“We’ve taken fire out of the picture, and logging can mimic what fires used to do: take out the bad and leave the good,” Eide said. He noted, however, “We can’t get as much done without the loggers. They are critical.”Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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