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Becker County calls for halt on cutting trees on Hwy 34

The White Earth Nation also will weigh in on the issue, and will send letters to Governor Walz and MnDOT leadership, said White Earth General Counsel Antonio Solorzano, who was at the Becker County Board meeting Tuesday.

winter Hwy 34.jpg
Highway 34 is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway. (Submitted photo)
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DETROIT LAKES — Becker County has asked Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Transportation for a moratorium on the extensive tree-cutting planning for Highway 34 this year.

The Becker County Board unanimously supported asking the state for the moratorium at its meeting Tuesday.

The White Earth Nation also will weigh in on the issue, and will send letters to Walz and MnDOT leadership, said White Earth General Counsel Antonio Solorzano, who was at the Becker County Board meeting Tuesday.

“White Earth has concerns about MnDOT cutting to that extent,” Solorzano said.

As part of a roadway improvement project, MnDOT plans to cut back all trees 65 feet on both sides of Highway 34 over a 21-mile stretch of scenic byway from Four Corners to just west of Osage.

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And more tree-cutting will go back 150 feet south of the highway throughout a 7-mile stretch of the Smoky Hills State Forest.

Tree-removal bids could be let as soon as this month and the cutting is expected to begin shortly after that – including mature and old-growth red pine.

“That’s going to decimate our scenic byway – everybody is very upset,” Scott Sonstegaard told commissioners Tuesday at the Becker County Board meeting. “Why can’t we get MnDOT to listen to us? We want the beautiful road to stay beautiful.”

Sonstegaard, who owns Becker Pet and Garden in Detroit Lakes, was at the meeting with Detroit Lakes Chamber Tourism Director Cleone Stewart, county resident Willis Mattison, and Bill Henke, who is co-president of the local Izaak Walton League Chapter.

“No matter what we bring up, MnDOT goes by old regulations,” Stewart said. “They won’t change, even though people want change.”

MnDOT wants to cut the trees to improve safety, but in this case the costs to a beloved stretch of roadway aren’t worth it, said Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson. “I don’t think it will improve safety enough to justify what will be lost,” he said.

For some reason, speeding and reckless driving have become more of a problem in Minnesota since the pandemic hit, but cutting down all the trees isn’t the solution, Henke said. “It’s very simple with this highway – slow down. You don’t have to drive so fast – this is a road to enjoy the scenery.”

Most accidents along that stretch of road have not involved hitting trees, he said.

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At an earlier meeting with MnDOT officials, “we asked MnDOT to hit the pause button and not cut the trees,” Henke said. “But the meeting ended with the likelihood of no change in the plans.”

He said MnDOT admitted that the lane-widening road project could go ahead as planned, and the trees could be cut later if necessary. “They do not have to happen at the same time,” Henke said. “We ask the county to call for a moratorium until the state updates its vegetative management plan (for scenic byways),” he added.

Mattison said the science doesn’t necessarily back up MnDOT claims that tree removal will improve safety on Highway 34. “We made the best appeal we could,” Mattison said. “We believe we’re being refused.”

The $13 million construction project involves a 21-mile, full-depth reclamation and repaving project from the Four Corners (Highway 29) intersection to the old Highway 225 (now County Road 47) intersection near Osage.

Construction work will be done in 2023, but tree-cutting will start this fall, unless a moratorium is imposed.

Plans for tree-cutting along Highway 34 have changed several times this year, after locals voiced outrage over the original plan – which involved cutting 85% of trees back 250 feet from the highway along that 7-mile Smokey Hills southside stretch.

First MnDOT modified that to 75% of trees back 150 feet in the “shade zone,” then to 50% of the trees, after MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger met with Becker County commissioners and project opponents in Detroit Lakes on April 5.

But MnDOT has steadfastly refused to change plans to cut all the trees in the 65-foot “clear zone” on both sides of the highway along the entire 21-mile project.

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That segment of right-of-way hasn’t been cut in years, and is a big reason the scenic byway is so popular – there are a lot of mature and even old-growth trees there that will be taken out, permanently changing the look and feel of the roadway.

“We cannot overemphasize how much Scenic Highway 34 Byway is enjoyed by our residents of the Detroit Lakes, Fargo and Park Rapids area, and is certainly enjoyed by our out-of-state tourist visitors,” Henke and Ikes co-president Matt Davis said in a Sept. 6 letter to Daubenberger. “We enjoy our byway for the beauty, biodiversity and quality of life it offers in its natural state,” they wrote, adding that, on a broader scale, “the proposed tree removal has engendered an element of fear for what it represents for the devaluation of the state’s scenic byways statewide.”

A public meeting on the Highway 34 project, co-hosted by the Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway and Prairie Woods Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA), is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15 at the Jack Pines Resort near Osage.

(This story has been corrected to reflect the most recent project cost estimate of $13 million, up from the original $8.9 million)

Related Topics: DETROIT LAKESBECKER COUNTY
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