MnDOT pauses deep logging on Hwy 34 for one year, but tree removal continues along the roadway
“We are currently paused on the part of the project in the Smoky Hills area where we were planning to do shade reduction,” MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said in a meeting.
DETROIT LAKES — MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger had good news and bad news on a Zoom meeting Feb. 14 with lawmakers and opponents of logging on Highway 34.
First, the bad news: The agency will continue cutting trees 65 feet out from either side of the center line along the length of the 21-mile repaving project on Highway 34.
But there is some good news: A second, deeper tree-cutting project — along a 7-mile stretch on the south side of the Highway 34 scenic byway in the Smoky Hills area — has been postponed a year to the winter of 2024-2025, Daubenberger said.
“We are currently paused on the part of the project in the Smoky Hills area where we were planning to do shade reduction,” she said.
The Zoom meeting was attended by Reps. Krista Knudsen, R-Lake Shore, and Jim Joy, R-Hawley, a half-dozen opponents of the Highway 34 tree-cutting project, and MnDOT District 4 Engineer Shiloh Wahl.
Wahl said that MnDOT has signed a one-year contract with the University of Minnesota to study the impact of tree shade reduction on highway ice. The study will likely start in March and continue until March 2024, Wahl said.
MnDOT had originally planned to cut 85% of trees back 250 feet from the highway on that 7-mile scenic stretch, so trees would no longer shade the highway.
But after community outrage, MnDOT changed its plans twice, finally settling on removing half the trees back 100 feet on that 7-mile stretch. With the stipulation that it will later cut deeper if necessary.
“They (the University of Minnesota researchers) are going to be looking at the effects of shade on our highways and how it directly affects the temperature of the pavement,” Wahl said. The study will also look at “how that correlates to using less chlorides on our roads,” he added, “so there’s less salt, less sand, less brine out there, which ultimately is better for the environment — when we don't have to put those chlorides into our ditches and our lakes.”
MnDOT will wait for the result of the study, he added, “and then the following winter, the winter of 2024-2025, would be the winter where we would do that selective harvesting … to take out some of those shade reduction trees.”
“A lot of those white and red pines are tall ones,” he said. “But we’re hoping to have it look like more of a park setting, where half the trees are still there. You won't see a clear-cut line, it's very much sprinkled with all species of trees, and will very much be a beautiful corridor when we're done.”
He said the highway has to be cleared of trees for 65 feet on both sides of the center line for safety’s sake.
He said a mail carrier driving on Highway 34 at night died a few years ago after apparently falling asleep, leaving the roadway, and hitting a tree 56 feet out from the center line.
“So had a tree not been in that area, that person would have likely, you know, survived that run off the road,” Wahl said. “ So this is something that MnDOT does, it’s very, very common … we don't like fixed objects in the clear zone.”
Bob Bachman, former executive director of the RiverKeeper group in Fargo-Moorhead, said that local MnDOT officials could learn a lesson from how MnDOT handles projects elsewhere.
“There’s a project going on right now on Highway 34 in Ackley where MnDOT has been involved in a two-year planning project that involves the community,” Bachman said. “There have been several meetings, and much effort being made to listen to the community as to what they want to see on this very, very short stretch of road as it passes through Ackley.”
He added that he has not seen a similar effort put forth on the Highway 34 scenic byway. “I would hope that we could change that,” Bachman said.
“There’s also the Highway 2 project going on in Cass Lake not very far from here,” he added, “where DOT developed a steering committee made up of local stakeholders — the city of Cass Lake, the local tribe. Many, many options (were presented) as well as a variety of ways for the public to be involved, in numerous meetings where revisions are constantly shared with the public. Again, another way where MnDOT is engaging the public.”
While the 7-mile stretch has gained a one-year reprieve, logging along the 65-foot “clear zone” is ongoing and is nearing the section of highway known for its showy lady slippers, the state flower, according to Willis Mattison, who lives along Highway 34 and is helping lead the opposition to MnDOT’s tree-removal plan.
“The reason we're here today is to appeal to you as commissioner, and to our legislators, to consider granting a voluntary pause in the logging, which is going on right outside my house,” Mattison said. “They (the loggers) are already through Snellman and are now right to the brink of where the showy lady slipper concentrations are. It’s probably the largest, most concentrated bed of showy lady slippers in Minnesota, and it's being treated with cavalier dismissal. That's outrageous. And we plead with you to call an end to this and stop the machines before they reach this treasure of Minnesota.”
But Daubenberger said the work would continue. “We're removing vegetation (trees) from the clear zone, and we need to keep that project going forward,” she said.
The state flower doesn’t have any special protection from road construction, although MnDOT has said it will try to preserve as many lady slippers as possible. Scenic byways in Minnesota also have no special protection from road construction.
That’s unfortunate, because “the intrinsic quality that defines our byway is scenic,” Erica Gilsdorf, a video producer and business owner in Detroit Lakes, said in the meeting. “The unique merging of prairie hardwood and conifer forest – the trees are what makes us a scenic byway and worth visiting.”
Gilsdorf’s family-owned Lakeside tavern in Detroit Lakes for 20 years, a business that relied heavily on tourism, in part from that scenic byway.
The Lake Country Scenic Byway was one of the two byways studied by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center in 2010, Gilsdorf said. “An estimated 51,000 travel parties visited the region specifically because of the byway. These travel parties spent $29.3 million while in the region.” Taking inflation into account, that would amount to $39.3 million in today’s dollars, she said.
Mattison said opponents of the logging will not stop fighting. “We're now fully prepared to advance a court case under Minnesota Environmental Rights Act,” he said, “whereby we intend to request punitive damages and court costs for the unwarranted and unrepairable destruction of the natural environment for economic harms, and for the fraudulent expenditure of public funds.
“It's a shame that we have to do this,” he added, “but we're fully committed, because I believe if this (logging) moves forward, it sets the precedent for wanton waste and destruction on other highways around the state, and that's unacceptable. So we must make a precedent out of this by standing our ground, and insisting that our government functions for the people, not independent of it.”
The Zoom meeting was coordinated by Knudsen and attended by Joy, who mostly listened and remained neutral on the project, although Joy said he intends to find out more about it. Sens. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, and Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, were invited to the meeting but did not attend.