Scenic byway or not, here come the axes on Highway 34
“What is the threshold to warrant clear-cutting trees 65 feet from both sides of Highway 34, from Highway 29 to the Shell River, starting next month?" asked Cleone Stewart.
DETROIT LAKES — Tree-cutting will start on the Highway 34 construction project in late January — with trees to be cut 65 feet out on both sides of the highway from the center line, according to MnDOT Project Manager Joeb Oyster.
Supporters of the scenic byway were allowed to mark trees of significance, mostly large red and white pine, with ribbons, but there were no guarantees that the selected trees would be spared.
A second contract will be bid next year for extensive tree removal 100 feet back from the highway from approximately Snellman to the Shell River on the south side of the road. That work will be done between Nov. 1, 2023, and March 31, 2024, after the road construction project is completed.
The $13 million construction project involves a 21-mile, full-depth reclamation and repaving project from the Four Corners (Highway 29) intersection to just west of Osage.
The highway project is routine, but the tree-cutting plans along Highway 34 have proved controversial and have changed several times, after locals voiced outrage over the original plan — which involved cutting 85% of trees back 250 feet from the highway along a 7-mile Smoky 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. The county board has called for the trees to be spared on Highway 34 until MnDOT can revamp its vegetation guidelines for scenic byways.
MnDOT is now talking about harvesting trees 100 feet back in the 7-mile Smoky Hills stretch.
“Tree removal limits will be 100 feet or less from the road surface in the shade reduction area,” according to a MnDOT memo. “It will no longer be 150 feet from the centerline of the highway. This is in line with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service original review of the project area.”
As it now stands, road construction work will be done in spring and summer of 2023, but tree-cutting will start this winter.
Cleone Stewart, a member of Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway, said she hopes MnDOT saves the trees this winter that have been marked as significant.
“Through this process to continue protecting the Lake Country Scenic Byway’s scenic assets, we’re thankful for all who speak up to bring about change,” she said. “We appreciate that MnDOT District 4’s Engineer Shiloh Wahl lives in the community and that District 4 will consider saving special stands of trees in the clear-cut zone.”
The real challenge, she said, has been lack of transparency by MnDOT District 4 “in clearly sharing timely information and allowing meaningful public input that is actually taken into consideration.”
While true that MnDOT has reduced the number of trees to be selectively harvested in the 7 miles from Snellman to the Shell River next winter, she said, “what is the threshold to warrant clear-cutting trees 65 feet from both sides of Highway 34, from Highway 29 to the Shell River, starting next month? There has been an offer by a Becker County commissioner to find solutions of sharing winter road maintenance equipment out of Osage, and requests to sign road areas of winter driving concern, both dismissed.”
Stewart added that the Lake Country Scenic Byway Association has been promoting Highway 34 since MnDOT’s program designated it in May of 1999. “Our defining asset is the unique merging of prairie and hardwood trees to conifers, seen nowhere else in the United States,” she said. “Where is the protection of these scenic assets of the byway? So that there is not a drastic change of scenery in the Smoky Hills area by the Navillus Road area, these trees should absolutely be spared from clear-cutting.”
And she is concerned about the state flower growing along Highway 34. “For MnDOT to say that tree-clearing equipment needs to avoid and minimize disturbing Showy Lady’s Slippers is lukewarm protection at best,” Stewart said. “This orchid area by Snellman should absolutely not be disturbed by clear-cutting. All of MnDOT’s clear-cutting plans are drastic measures that need to be dismissed to preserve the scenic value of Highway 34.”
A lot of people are upset at losing trees on the scenic byway, and nobody was mollified by the way MnDOT officials describe the situation.
“The controversy surrounding the project has not increased, rather it continues to decrease as we provide additional education on the scope of work,” MnDOT environmental Coordinator Gabriel Dretsch wrote in a memo to MnDOT District Engineer, Shiloh Wahl. “The individuals and groups who oppose the project continue to voice their concerns and disapproval, but most individuals who have been misinformed have become less opposed to the project.”
The misinformation, he wrote, was evident at an October open house on the project. “After speaking with individuals at the open house, it was evident that many were misinformed about the scope of work. Specifically, the public believed the project was going to clear-cut all trees within MnDOT right of way, rather than selectively harvest trees in designated areas that make up approximately 1/6 of the project area. After discussions with the project engineers and other functional area leaders at the event, most attendees left the event with a more positive outlook about the proposed work,” Dretsch wrote in the MnDOT Addendum to Categorical Exclusion Determination memo.
Some of those opposed to the Highway 34 tree-cutting were surprised to find the situation characterized that way in that official MnDOT memo. “I’m taken aback that MnDOT describes the controversy around the tree-cutting as decreasing,” said Daniel Lakemacher of Honor the Earth. “If (MnDOT) District 4 is receiving fewer comments, it’s only because the district made it clear they won’t change in response to public opinion.”
Lakemacher said that people are writing and calling the governor’s office, and their state and federal legislators, “looking for someone to exercise oversight on a state project that remains unanimously opposed by our local elected officials, the Becker County Board of Commissioners. There’s not a decrease in controversy, there’s a recognition that we need to look beyond the district for our concerns to be addressed.”
Matt Davis, co-president of the Prairie Woods Chapter of Izaak Walton League, is especially unhappy with the extensive tree-cutting plans for the 7-mile eastern stretch.
“Yes, MnDOT staff has compromised on the tree removal part of the project, but we still would like to see hard data showing that the shade tree removal actually resulted in warmer pavement and reduced salt use on a similar roadway,” he said. “It seems like MnDOT is conducting an experiment, but the scenic byway’s defining dense conifer trees in the Smoky Hills cannot be stood back up if MnDOT is wrong. Instead, they’ll be forced to cut even more trees further back from the road in hopes of seeing the change they hoped for.”
State officials may not seem overly responsive to Becker County and the Detroit Lakes Tourism Bureau, but they are working with the White Earth Nation.
“MnDOT completed a formal consultation with White Earth on Nov. 21, 2022,” Dretsch wrote in the memo. “MnDOT will coordinate with White Earth Nation on the shade reduction tree removal process to assist MnDOT with what trees should be removed and protected.”
He added that “White Earth Nation would also like to potentially plant White Cedar upon completion of the project, who plants the trees will be decided in future conversations between MnDOT and White Earth Nation. MnDOT will use tribal loggers for the selective tree removal in the shade reduction area, if possible. MnDOT will work with White Earth Nation to discuss this as the contract progresses.”