Becker County asks MnDOT to reconsider tree-cutting on Hwy 34

“I don’t like to tell another agency, that we don’t have any control over, what to do,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “We just ask that they reconsider that extreme cutting to that degree … We value the trees in that area, and this is overkill.”

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A group of Showy Lady's Slippers along Highway 34. They are the official state flower, but that offers them no special protections.
Contributed / Kelly Blackledge
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Becker County commissioners have joined the chorus of voices asking the Minnesota Department of Transportation to sheath its plans for large-scale tree cutting along scenic Highway 34.

The board voted unanimously to send a letter to MnDOT asking it to reconsider its tree removal plans along the stretch of Highway 34 from Four Corners to Osage.

“I don’t like to tell another agency, that we don’t have any control over, what to do,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “We just ask that they reconsider that extreme cutting to that degree … We value the trees in that area, and this is overkill.”

A red pine that will be cut later this year as part of a repaving project on Highway 34.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Blackledge

“If you’re taking those (mature red and white pine) trees out, you’re going to have poplar grow up thick as hair on a dog’s back,” said Commissioner Larry Knutson. “They’ll have to maintain that.”

Commissioner John Okeson noted that in MnDOT District 2, in Hubbard County, “the trees are a lot closer to the road.”


The issue arose because MnDOT plans to remove all trees 65 feet back from the center line on both sides of Highway 34 in Becker County from Four Corners to just west of Osage.

It also plans to clear out the majority of trees in one of the most beautiful parts of Highway 34, on the south side along a seven-mile stretch from Snellman to the Shell River. There, three-quarters of all trees will be removed, from the clear zone back to 150 feet.

The affected area offers one of the best, most visible Showy Lady’s Slipper orchid populations in the region, and opponents fear the logging activity and loss of trees will decimate the state flower in those areas. MnDOT says it will mark those areas to help contractors avoid them.

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Highway 34 is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway. (Submitted photo)

“You don’t see that many lady slippers in the ditch within viewing range,” Dr. Ron Miller of Fargo told commissioners. “Usually you have to go into the woods to find them.”

Miller was one of several people, both in-person and remotely, who spoke against the tree-cutting plans at the Feb. 15 County Board meeting.

“It takes special conditions for lady slippers,” he said. “What will happen when the trees are gone and the shade is gone?”

It’s not just a beautiful stretch of roadway that will be scarred for a generation, it’s also an economic blow to the region, since autumn foliage tourism on Highway 34 has an economic impact of $29 million a year, Cleone Stewart told the county board prior to the vote. She is tourism director at Detroit Lakes Tourism Bureau and Regional Chamber of Commerce.

That extensive tree-clearing is part of a 21-mile reclamation and repaving (not widening) project set for 2023 on Highway 34. The tree-cutting will start this fall if MnDOT doesn’t rethink its plans.


Highway 34 is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway, a program also administered by MnDOT.

“This is not reasonable and this is not right,” Stewart said. “This is a state MnDOT policy we’re not in agreement with,” she told the board. “We do have a good working relationship with (MnDOT) District 4 people, they’ve done a lot for us. It’s the policy we are not in agreement with … some of those red and white pines are over 100 years old.”

Bill Henke, who represents the local Izaak Walton League, said the trees will be destroyed out of a misguided effort to enhance roadway safety.

“Really there’s no data to support that diminishing trees that shade the highway (will improve safety),” he said. “The tree removal plan violates the spirit and the mission of the scenic byway program and violates the state’s vegetation policy to protect and enhance the native environment."

MnDOT is prioritizing traffic safety over preserving the beauty of that stretch of highway. Although the accident rate on Highway 34 is in line with the state average for similar two-lane highways, it is higher than average in the project area. In November of 2020 a motorist died in that stretch when a vehicle hit a tree, according to information provided to the county by MnDOT, which did not send a representative to the meeting.

The pandemic appears to have increased reckless driving across the nation, including Minnesota, said Henke: “Speed, alcohol, unbelted drivers are often responsible for accidents. Tree removal is not a substitute for poor choices, bad behaviors, and not driving for conditions. Do we have to race through a scenic byway?”

He urged MnDOT to wait on the tree removal and continue with the planned improvements to the roadway itself, since the $8.9 million resurfacing project alone could improve ride conditions and safety.

“Before we take out the things that are notable,” Henke said, “can we try giving the new highway improvements a chance?”


Howard Mooney of Detroit Lakes, owner of Howard Forestry LLC, told commissioners that he is “normally a strong proponent of timber sales – but this is a very different matter … if you’re taking out 75% of the trees, it’s not thinning, it’s near clear-cutting.”

Even with the tree removal, because of the low winter sun, “they aren’t going to get the snowmelt (on the project stretch) that they get on Highway 34 near Osage,” he said.

MnDOT needs a different statewide tree plan, he added. “If all the trees are taken out 65 feet on each side of every state highway,” MnDOT will be taking out trees that it planted, he said.

“In many cases MnDOT actually planted Norway pines on the back side of the right of way,” Mooney said. “In most places in Minnesota if you go off the road, you’ll hit a tree — it’s a forest. They need a different protocol.”

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