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MnDOT claims of Hwy. 34 project's 'minimal' impact on trees greeted with skepticism at virtual meeting

A 21-mile road reclamation and resurfacing project on State Highway 34 in Becker County has caught the attention of environmentalists and nature lovers across Minnesota, drawing just over 80 people to a virtual open house on the project that was hosted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Wednesday, Jan. 12. Of particular concern: A plan to remove 75% of the trees and vegetation in the project's "clear zone," due to the route's status as part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway as well as being a known area for viewing large numbers of Minnesota's state flower, the Showy Lady's Slipper.

Hwy 34 trees.jpg
Mature trees and winding roads are among the main attractions of of the Lake Country Scenic Byway along Highway 34 in Becker County. (David Samson / Forum News Service)

The skeptics had their say at a virtual open house hosted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Wednesday, Jan. 12, to discuss its plans for rehabilitating a 21-mile stretch of State Highway 34 between County Roads 29 and 47 in Becker County.

A total of 81 people — including 13 members of MnDOT's staff — logged into the meeting, which was held via Webex.

The meeting began with Project Manager Joeb Oyster outlining MnDOT's plans for the project.

"We're not widening the road at all," Oyster said. "The shoulders and road width are staying the exact same."

Of more concern to attendees, however, was Oyster's comment that the project would involve "tree and vegetation clearing within the state right of way."

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He later explained that the tree removal would occur within the "clear zone," which for this project, was about 65 feet from the center line on both sides of the road.

"I worry about removing the old, established trees," commented Paul Orth in the accompanying chat log. "This is a scenic byway and (I) would like to keep that look. Trees are a big part of that."

"We don't anticipate a lot of trees removed within that clear zone," Oyster said. "We've had our surveyors out there and marked some locations, and there really aren't that many trees within that clear zone."

Oyster further clarified that the tree removal would actually occur within the "clear zone plus 10," meaning that an additional 10 feet of land would be cleared, beyond the designated zone, except in front of residences and through wetland areas, where only the clear zone would be included in the removal.

"That will be about 500 feet in front of a residence that we don't touch any trees, outside the clear zone," Oyster said, adding that all trees are removed from within the clear zone, "no matter what."

The 10 feet of extra clearance is to allow MnDOT maintenance equipment to operate along the roadway, and prevent trees from damaging the equipment, he explained. "It's expensive, and we don't want to have to repair or replace it."

In explaining the "selective logging" that would be taking place, under a separate contract from the road construction, Oyster noted that it would only be on the south side of the road, and it would all be done in the fall, in order to accommodate certain environmental restrictions.

"It's only on the south side of the road," Oyster said, adding that the logging portion of the project would be finished in the fall, in order to accommodate certain environmental restrictions.

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He noted the logging would occur on a short, five-mile stretch of the roadway, from Snellman to the Shell River, or "less than 12% of the project lane miles."

"We've put a lot of effort into doing only what (logging) we feel is necessary in these areas," Oyster said. "Only 75% of the trees in that area will be removed, and 25% will remain."

He also noted that the remaining trees would be of all species, and all maturity levels.

In addition to his chat comments, Orth also spoke during the virtual meeting, stating, "This road's been around a long time. It's been redone, it's been widened, and at each point, the people that are involved in it have had a chance to remove the trees, and they have not done so. I don't know what might have changed since the last time anything was done. I'm obviously for keeping the trees."

"Traffic counts go up over the years, and our maintenance procedures have evolved," Oyster said. "This road has been talked about going to four-lane, I don't know if it ever will, but that's been some of the discussion over the years too."

In addition to reducing the potential safety hazards in the areas where the trees are being cleared, Oyster noted that it would also allow for decreased chemical usage to clear ice and snow from the road during the winter months, as the increased amount of sunlight let in would increase the temperature of the pavement and allow for more natural snow and ice melt to occur.

"If you can go from a shaded section of roadway to an unshaded portion... our salt can do double the work," said Kohl Skalin, a member of MnDOT's maintenance staff. "You can do more with less."

"What's the economic impact of lost tourism dollars from those who desire 'the road less traveled'?" asked area resident Terry Kalil in the chat log.

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"I don't have a dollar amount, I think that would be arbitrary, I suppose it would only be known afterwards," Oyster said. "We don't anticipate any loss. … We don't foresee any major change to the scenic value of the highway with this project."

Some of the attendees disputed Oyster's claim that the scenic value of the roadway wouldn't change.

"Removing 75% of the trees on less than 5 miles of the most scenic miles in the region will MOST DEFINITELY impact the scenic values along the Scenic Byway," stated lakes area resident Matthew Davis in the chat log.

"I'm 72 years old, I've been coming to the Park Rapids area from Fargo all my life," said Wick Corwin. "I've driven this highway countless times, winter and summer. I get the fact that it can be icy in winter. The solution, I would submit, is to slow down and enjoy the scenery. But the trees have always been there.... I'm guessing, some of them, for over a century, and they're not 65 feet away from the center line, which is what I find to be most troubling."

Corwin said that he had done some investigating on the matter himself. "I went back yesterday with snow shoes and a long measuring tape just to get a better handle on what the actual distances are, and in the area that I'm most concerned with, which is between Snellman and the Shell River — because that's where the best of the best is thriving, and the best trees are growing — I wish it was 65 feet between the center line and the tree line, because that would tell me that fewer trees would come down, but I typically measured about 40 feet between the center line and the tree line."

The full video of the virtual meeting, along with the accompanying video chat log and full details of the project, can be accessed via MNDOT’s website at www.dot.state.mn.us/d4/projects/hwy34 .

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