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Tree-cutting plans on scenic Highway 34 have locals up in arms

MnDOT says the tree-cutting is necessary to make the highway safer, but opponents say the plan violates the spirit of the state’s scenic byway program, which has included Highway 34 for over 20 years.

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Highway 34 is part of the Lake Country Scenic Byway. (Submitted photo)
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MnDOT has run into something of a buzzsaw of opposition over a plan to cut down trees as part of an $8.9 million construction project on Highway 34 between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids.

MnDOT says the tree-cutting is necessary to make the highway safer, but opponents say the plan violates the spirit of the state’s scenic byway program, which has included Highway 34 for over 20 years.

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 trees are tentatively scheduled to be cut this fall.

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Showy Lady’s Slipper off Highway 34. (Submitted photo)

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“We are working to preserve especially the stately red and white pines that are among trees targeted for logging,” said Cleone Stewart, tourism director for the Detroit Lakes chamber of commerce.

In 2023, MnDOT will oversee a 21-mile, full-depth reclamation and repaving project on Highway 34 from the Four Corners (Highway 29) intersection to the old Highway 225 (now County Road 47) intersection near Osage, said MnDOT project manager Joeb Oyster.

Some trees will be cut all along the project length as part of a “clear zone” that extends 65 feet from the center line, Oyster said, but that will be relatively few trees – just those that have been missed by maintenance crews and allowed to grow over the years.

But most of the cutting will be on the south side of Highway 34 along a seven-mile stretch from Snellman to the Shell River outside of Osage. There, additional trees will be removed, from the clear zone back to 150 feet, to get rid of the shade trees that can make the roadway icy in the wintertime, Oyster said.

“It’s not a clear cut,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into looking at this.”

About 75% of the trees will be removed, but those that remain will represent a diversity of species – red pine, white pine, red oak, poplar, birch and others.

“Some mature trees of each species will be left in place,” said Oyster. “We're trying to make the road safer by getting sun on the road and increasing the pavement temperature. We’re trying to limit the amount of (de-icing) chemicals we put down, to improve the environment and improve road safety.”

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Trees were logged off for a construction project on Highway 200, and opponents fear a similar look after trees are removed on scenic Highway 34. (Submitted photo)

MnDOT planners met with several local groups concerned about the tree-cutting plans, including the Isaac Walton League and the Friends of Lake Country Scenic Byway, and agreed to scale back some of the original tree-cutting plans. “We are doing our best to limit it for scenic byway purposes,” Oyster said.

Where MnDOT’s right-of-way extends 250 feet from the highway, trees will not be removed in the zone from 150 feet to 250 feet. Since the selective logging in the right-of-way will leave a diversity of only 25% of the trees, “a great number of the stately red and white pine trees are subject to being cut down,” Stewart said. “This area is also known for the many communities of the state flower, the Showy Lady’s Slipper, which is in the path of logging equipment and will be left without tree shading,” she added.

For its part, MnDOT says that late fall-winter logging will create minimal disturbances to the plants.

Oyster said MnDOT made some significant revisions after meeting with the groups concerned about logging on Highway 34. By preserving trees from 150 feet to 250 feet from the highway; removing 75% of the target trees instead of 85%; and sparing trees growing next to wetlands and residences, “we will be above a 50% ratio of trees remaining for the area of the entire seven-mile stretch,” he said.

He told the groups that “we appreciate and understand your continued concerns and hope you appreciate all the efforts we have put forward to balance our project goals and your group’s concerns.”

Willis Mattison, of the local Izaak Walton League, provided a host of reasons why the loss of so many mature trees would be harmful.

“We respectfully request that MnDOT reconsider this excessive tree removal that will take away the ‘scenic’ in Lake Country Scenic Byway,” he said in a news release.

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He said the tree-removal plan:

  • Disregards the mission of the scenic byway program: Community involvement by partners and defending the trees and other features of the byway.
  • Violates MnDOT’s principles and goals stated in its Integrated Roadside Vegetative Management Plan.
  • Scenic byways should be kept scenic by creating special standards for state highway projects.
  • Lake Country Scenic Byway deserves special consideration because it is in a transition zone where tallgrass prairie merges with hardwood and conifer forests.
  • This project is a road resurfacing project, not a road clearing and widening project.
  • More consideration should be given to alternatives like lower speed limits, and improved road signs.
  • Replanting of red and white pines will take decades to grow back as replacements.
  • Cutting this many trees will increase erosion and the spread of invasive species.
  • Economic impact: MN Tourism Center’s 2010 economic impact study estimated expenditures by travelers visiting the Lake Country Scenic Byway to be $29.3 million annually.
  • Without the scenic viewshed of trees, drivers may lose the incentive to drive Highway 34 to eastern destinations, impacting Snellman, Osage, Park Rapids and beyond.
  • Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids and Walker invest thousands of dollars to print an attractions map of the scenic byway, featuring it as an outstanding fall foliage route, as well as brochures and on tourism websites.
  • Area residents are not aware of the excessive tree removal planned and would greatly oppose it.

Oyster said that there are 42 “lane miles” (counting both sides of the road) impacted by the project, but less than seven miles that involve extensive logging. All in all, he said, “less than 16% of lane-miles in the project corridor will have trees removed, other than the clear zone.”
Those who think “there’s going to be major changes to the 21-mile corridor will be surprised,” he said. “We do our best to balance the safety of the public, environmental concerns, and our budget when we design a project,” he said.

MnDOT is holding a virtual public meeting on the project at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 12, at: https://www.dot.state.mn.us/d4/projects/hwy34/ .

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