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OUR VIEW: MnDOT needs to slam the brakes on Highway 34 tree-cutting plan

This whole tree-clearing plan needs to be shelved. And as soon as possible, new special roadway standards need to be put in place to protect special areas like the Lake Country Scenic Byway. -From the Detroit Lakes Tribune Editorial Board

Looking down a tree-lined Highway 34 in the wintertime.
Highway 34 is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway.
(Detroit Lakes Tribune File Photo)
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The Minnesota Department of Transportation needs to back off on its plans for cutting down trees along the Highway 34 scenic byway between Four Corners and Osage.

Just because the highway is being resurfaced doesn’t mean MnDOT needs to go in and “slaughter the highway,” as one Becker County commissioner put it, only half-jokingly, at a county board meeting Tuesday.

MnDOT intends to log off a substantial number of beautiful, mature red and white pines, 65 feet from the center line on both sides, as part of an $8.9 million full-depth reclamation and repaving project on Highway 34.

The project is set for 2023, but tree-cutting is tentatively set for this autumn from Four Corners to Osage. Even more trees will be sacrificed on the south side of Highway 34 along a seven-mile stretch from Snellman to the Shell River, outside of Osage. There, three-quarters of all trees will be removed, from the clear zone back to 150 feet.

Removal of all those trees could damage or destroy the rare showy lady's slipper orchid population that now thrives along portions of the highway. So the plan manages to target both the state tree (red pine) and the state flower. It also violates the spirit of the state’s scenic byway program, which has included Highway 34 for over 20 years.

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MnDOT has said the plan will make Highway 34 a safer travel route in the wintertime, as the shade from the trees can make the roadway icy. The department has also said it wouldn't need to use as much salt to clear ice and snow from the highway if it were unshaded.

While safety is an obvious concern of everyone's, including ours here at the Tribune, we have yet to be convinced that the trade-off is worth it in this case.

The idea behind the scenic byway program is to preserve and show off Minnesota’s natural features and rugged landscapes. Not every roadway right-of-way needs to be cleared out like an interstate highway. The mature trees along Highway 34 are a big part of what makes the highway scenic, and every effort should be made to preserve them.

Lake Country Scenic Byway runs along Highway 34 from Detroit Lakes to Park Rapids to Walker, with a spur to Itasca State Park, and runs through a transition area where prairie meets hardwood and conifer forests.

The community appears to be strongly against this plan. We haven’t talked to anybody outside of MnDOT who thinks it’s a good idea. It's a mistake, and it's one that the community will have to live with for years, because that roadway will never be the same.

People have been speaking openly and publicly about their distaste for this plan, and MnDOT needs to listen.

We'd like to see this whole tree-clearing plan be shelved. Let the highway construction project go on without it. It’s not an essential part of repaving the highway.

And then, as soon as possible, preferably during this legislative session, new special roadway standards should be put in place to protect special areas like the Lake Country Scenic Byway.

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The Becker County Board is considering a resolution opposing MnDOT’s tree-clearing plans on Highway 34, and will hear a presentation from opponents on Feb. 15.

We hope the county sends a message loud and clear to MnDOT that this beautiful stretch of roadway should be spared from the chopping block.

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