Seeing the forest for the grass: Grassland conservation and restoration in northwest Minnesota, Part II

By Eric Chien

Part II

A thick grey and white bulwark of aspen stems stood firmly before us. In the weak April morning light, the thick stand of trees appeared impenetrable; the wind whispered their claim to the acres of land before us. I certainly couldn’t argue about their dominion over this landscape, but when working for the Corps it is best to be inclined to audacity not doubt. “We need you to cut a firebreak through here. It will connect to a clearing about a half mile to the east,” explained the SNA (Scientific and Natural Areas) specialist overseeing the project. With those marching orders, clad in the high-vis orange that coats our chainsaws, chaps and saw helmets, the four of us melted into the trees and fired up our saws.

Northwest Minnesota is true borderland. Here the tallgrass of the Eastern Great Plains bleeds into Minnesota’s famed Northwoods. Aspen and grass expand and contract their ranges as if the omniscient painter of our state can’t decide whether they want more trees or more grass. Fire is the brush with which nature tries out its ceaseless indecision on the northwest landscape. Historically, controlled in its application only by the prevailing weather conditions, fire spread frequently and far over the land, killing trees in its wake and giving the soil back to grasses. However, the days of frequent and unchecked fire have long since passed. While this region of the state remains among our most wild and remote regions, it has not escaped the realities of the contemporary landscape. Fragmentation and expanding human residence bring along the need for fire suppression because the painter’s favorite brush does not discern between aspen and homes. The consequences of this change is what brought my crew to the Two Rivers Aspen Parkland SNA that April morning.

The drone of our saws proclaimed our intentions to the forest and slowly a thin ribbon of open ground snaked out behind us. While hundreds of trees fell over the next four days, the tens of thousands of aspen that bore witness and the fiery ache of our fatigued muscles seemed to declare the futility of our work. Our tree-cleared line stretched only a half-mile long and ten feet wide. Cutting a half-acre of trees out of a 1400-acre aspen forest is, on its face, a meaningless gesture. The life history of aspen in some ways mimics the characteristics of the fire that halts and reverses its spread. Growing clonally, the root mass of an aspen smolders like a giant ember safe underneath the soil, and when conditions are right it shoots out stems, radiating across the landscape. Over the past twenty years there has been a 340% increase in the amount of aspen forest on this particular property. This firestorm of aspen has occurred all over the Northwest region, and as a result the encroachment of woody plants has become one of the single most pressing threats to our remaining prairies.

In comparison to a wildfire, the spread of aspen is a slow process. Yet as I reflected on the formation of my school’s mosaic, I realized it is this relatively protracted change that makes it so concerning. Tree by tree, acre by acre, we have lost what little prairie we have left to aspen forest. The change is so imperceptible is escapes notice until one day, we get out of the truck and look to horizon and find that we can no longer see the sky. While this inability to find open sky evokes a feeling of discomfort in anyone who has grown to love prairies, it is one our dedicated land managers are actively working to reverse.