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Letter: Tree clearing plan will destroy beauty of Hwy 34

To sum up the MnDOT plan: Destroy the forest, eliminate lady slippers, create barren hillsides and road ditches, increase deer-vehicle collisions, and promote high-speed traffic, all at a cost of about $9 million.

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What was billed by MnDOT as a public meeting regarding resurfacing of Highway 34 concluded with the project engineer saying they had met earlier with local concerned citizens and had already made some compromises, so this was the project. End of meeting.

Were our concerns heard? Responded to with either data or science? In my opinion, a resounding no. I’ll admit, I’m no highway engineer and neither were the vast majority participating. We were “only” the people who live, work, recreate and pay taxes for the privilege of enjoying northeastern Becker County.

My qualification for speaking out is a simple one. I chose to live in Shell Lake Township because of the beauty of Highway 34. Over the past 28 years, I’ve driven more than 174,720 miles on Highway 34 in all possible road conditions.

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On those trips I've enjoyed the scenery (even in winter), the wildlife and the lady slippers. I've also appreciated the occasional passing lanes. A Scenic Byway is meant to be exactly that – an intimate, take-your-time roadway and not an expressway with speeds in excess of 75 mph.

Officially and somewhat ironically, MnDOT provides this: "A Scenic Byway can be defined as a road corridor that has regionally outstanding scenic, natural, recreational, cultural, historic or archeological significance. These corridors offer an alternative travel route to our major highways and daily travel patterns, while telling a story about Minnesota’s heritage, recreational activities or beauty. It’s a public road and its corridor recognized through legislation, or other official declaration, as a unique resource worth preserving. In addition, a Scenic Byway corridor is managed to protect this outstanding character and to encourage economic development through tourism and recreation."

The flaws in the MNDOT plan are too many to list here. Here are just two examples:

MnDOT: Clear-cutting trees won’t impact the lady slippers. And, let’s be clear: what MnDOT is proposing is closer to clear-cutting than it is the selective logging they term it. For the entire 21-mile project area, 100% of the trees on both sides of the road will be cleared to a distance of 65 feet each way from the centerline. In the most scenic stretch of the project (where lady slippers thrive and autumn views are breathtaking) what will remain is a mere 25% of the trees.

U.S. Forest Service data: Plants dug from the wild usually do not survive; the most common habitat is wetlands (forested or open) and moist woods; Rhizomes can live indefinitely, and plants may live up to 50 years, taking up to 16 years to flower for the first time. What MnDOT is proposing reduces the hillsides to barren wastelands.

MnDOT: the planned detour is south on County Road 29 from Four Corners to Frazee to Highway 87 to Menhaga.

Facts: No detour currently planned for people living north of Highway 34 or traveling to Bemidji, Pine Point, Bad Medicine Lake or north of Park Rapids. That is 3,355 people living northeast of Four Corners and 6,253 properties just in Becker County that MnDOT does not currently have a plan for rerouting. What about all those traveling to and through the area north of the Highway 34 and County Road 29 junction?

The detour situation is a perfect example of how MnDOT has not done its homework. MnDOT’s plan to clear-cut wide swaths of mature trees in the interest of safety accomplishes only one thing — it destroys the scenic byway.

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If they truly want to increase safety, here are a few much cheaper ideas — lower the speed limit, post digital signs warning of icy roads or hazards, enforce speed limits, create scenic turnouts to encourage people to stop and enjoy the views.

MnDOT offered no real science behind their strategy of cutting trees to rely on sunlight to melt ice. Weather data suggests that won’t happen, since January and February average 64% cloud cover. MnDOT’s response to the question of whether cutting trees will encourage more deer to migrate into the area in search of food and whether that would increase vehicle collisions was to simply say yes.

To sum it up, destroy the forest, eliminate lady slippers, create barren hillsides and road ditches, increase deer-vehicle collisions, and promote high-speed traffic, all at a cost of about $9 million.

MnDOT can and must do better before it destroys a valued scenic byway. The last thing Minnesotans want is another expressway devoid of the very characteristics that define Minnesota’s Lake Country Scenic Byway.

Related Topics: DETROIT LAKESBECKER COUNTY
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