Opponents still ‘hopeful’ to stop MnDOT's tree removal on Hwy. 34
MnDOT expects to release bids this week (Sept. 19-23) and hire a contractor in 30 days. Logging would begin in November.
The overriding question for those opposed to the proposed tree cutting along the Lake Country Scenic Byway is "why?"
They are demanding scientific data to support the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) assertions that tree removal will reduce the use of road salt during winter months, decrease deer collisions and prevent fatalities from crashes into trees.
An informational meeting, entitled "Protect the Smoky Hills: Don't clear cut the Lake Country Scenic Byway," on Thursday, Sept. 15 attracted about 50 to 65 residents from Osage, Detroit Lakes, Menahga, Snellman and Park Rapids. It was held at Jack Pines Resort, nestled in the Smoky Hills State Forest, near Osage.
The event was hosted by Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway and the Prairie Woods Chapter of Izaak Walton League of Minnesota.
Other groups working to protect the scenic byway include the Detroit Lakes Tourism Bureau, Honor the Earth and the Becker County Board.
Scott Sonstegard of the Izaak League said MnDOT officials were invited to attend the meeting, but they declined, drawing wry chuckles from the crowd.
"We're determined. We want this to not happen," Sonstegard said of the project.
A unique route
Detroit Lakes Tourism Director Cleone Stewart shared some quick facts about the Lake Country Scenic Byway. It was designated a scenic byway by MnDOT in May 1999.
Sixty-seven of its 88 miles run along State Hwy. 34, traversing three biomes.
“What’s really unique about the Lake Country Scenic Byway is this is the only place in the U.S. where the prairie of the West meets the hardwoods and conifers as we travel east,” she said.
“What makes it scenic? It’s the trees.”
Bid letting next week
In addition to resurfacing, MnDOT plans for full removal of all trees and shrubs 65 feet from the centerline for 21 miles – from Four Corners (County Road 39 in Becker County) to the Shell River (County Roads 46/27), just west of Osage.
An additional 50% of trees will be removed for 150 feet on the south side of State Hwy. 34 from about Snellman to the Shell River – a 7-mile stretch of the Smoky Hills State Forest.
Stewart said she spoke to Joeb Oyster, project manager for MnDOT’s District 4, on Sept. 15.
MnDOT expects to release bids next week and hire a contractor in 30 days, she reported.
"They're plan is to start in November, if the ground is frozen enough.”
Logging would be completed over this winter, with resurfacing occurring in the summer of 2023.
Impacts of clear zone
In 2010, the Lake Scenic Byway Association had a survey completed. It showed that travel parties spent $29.3 million while in the region of the byway that year. "This equates to more than $39 million today,” Stewart said.
"We know that driving the byway is an economic boost to the whole region,” she continued, with many people arriving to photograph and view the showy lady's slippers on the highway.
Stewart said MnDOT is aware of the state flower and they plan to move logging and construction equipment through gaps between the colonies.
Referring to MnDOT’s slide presentation, Stewart said the 65-foot clear zone may vary slightly due to the road shoulder, slope, wetlands or private property.
Showing MnDOT’s maps of the clear zone, plus the additional 150-feet tree removal, Stewart said, “In many places, the view will be different than what it is now.”
"We're still hopeful," she added, noting MnDOT has said it is open to selective harvesting in stands of Norway pines and possibly other species within the clear zone.
"We're pretty sure that some of these are 100 year or older. They survived the Paul Bunyan days. We hope they survive the MnDOT days.”
White Earth Tribal Nation’s interest
While residents along Hwy. 34 received a letter in 2021 about a resurfacing project, Daniel Lakemacher with Honor the Earth said no one at the White Earth Tribal Nation was properly notified.
According to MnDOT documentation, it was mistakenly sent to Leech Lake instead, he said.
“There is an aspect of this that we haven’t touched on yet,” Lakemacher said. “What I’m referencing is that the entirety of this section where this work is, the entirety of the Smoky Hills State Forest that will be impacted, is part of the 1855 Treaty Territory,” which pre-exists White Earth Reservation.
As a part of that treaty, Lakemacher said there should be consultation with the tribal members who’ll be impacted by the road project.
Lakemacher said White Earth tribal members are following up on this with MnDOT. “That is an area where I do have hope for this not happening right now,” he said. “My hope is that this does not happen without solid data.”
Lakemacher urged everyone to call Gov. Tim Walz, in addition to speaking to MnDOT officials.
He expressed concern that people haven’t been involved in the proces, and “some may be unaware of what's going to happen to a road they drive regularly.”
Opponents' goal is to stop the project for “more information and more public involvement,” he said.
Sonstegard agreed, saying it's been frustrating for the groups because they've repeatedly asked MnDOT for data.
Sonstegard praised Becker County commissioners for their efforts to save the trees.
Last week, the county board asked Gov. Tim Walz and MnDOT for a moratorium on the extensive tree-cutting plan.
Driving too fast
There was unequivocal agreement that the speed limit should be lowered on the byway.
Sonstegard said the Minnesota State Legislature could reduce the speed limit from 60 to 55 mph.
Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, said, “I've lived around this area for most of my adult life. I see the same things you do.”
She's tried to get the Becker County Sheriff to park by her land on Hwy. 34 and issue speeding tickets, saying they would make “a good chunk of money.”
"Just slow it down a little bit. Take a look,” LaDuke said.
She has placed slow-moving person signs as well, but they were taken down.
She, too, is concerned about the project’s impact on medicinal plants and biodiversity. “I think they do need to be challenged on some of these things because it's not right for Mother Earth and it’s not right for our water."
LaDuke said the tribe is equally concerned and “will push back on it.”
Upcoming MnDOT open house
MnDOT is hosting an open house for the Hwy. 34 project from 4-7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at the M State Campus in Detroit Lakes. There will not be a formal presentation.
Matthew Davis of the Izaak Walton League said, “We encourage you to go,” adding, “I'm a firm believer that they don't think there’s a lot of public interest in this project.”
Davis said MnDOT told him this project will be similar to one recently completed on State Hwy. 87 between Frazee and Menahga, where they received positive feedback.
“My response to them was Hwy. 87 is not a scenic byway,” he said. “I think MnDOT needs to hear from you folks.”
Sonstegard is a master gardener and owns a shop in Detroit Lakes.
Calling it one one of the most beautiful roads in the state, he said, “I'm scared what it's going to look like next spring.”
Showy lady’s slippers need the shade of trees and moisture to survive, he said. Cutting 65 feet of trees will destroy current family clusters, meanwhile ATV use in the ditches will likely run over the state flowers.
If they take out trees by Snellman, Sonstegard said, “All you'll see is fields. There's a nice 15- to 20-foot buffer of trees that will be gone.”
He argued that, after 50% of Norway pines are cut out 150 feet deep at Snellman, “it will destabilize the whole stand. They're colonies of trees and their roots support each other. You go in and hack them, you'll ruin them all.”
He pointed out that other states, like Wisconsin and Michigan, allows trees to abut their highways.
In closing, Sonstegard said the highway needs rumble strips, striping and resurfacing, "but just leave our trees."
They argue that road safety can be addressed by alternative measures, like enhanced lane markings, reduced speed limits and warning signs/signals for seasonal hazards.
"I don't think they've done their due diligence to check all the possible solutions. They just do it the way they’ve always done it,” Sonstegard concluded.