A Big Lake battle: Prairie or forest?

Which ecosystem is the right one for the Sand Dunes State Forest in Big Lake? The one that’s there now? Or the one that once was there?

The St. Cloud Times reports the neighbors are upset because the Department of Natural Resources wants to restore the area in the Anoka Sand Plain to the way it was before Europeans showed up. That would change the area to prairie and oak savanna.

The neighbors want to keep it a forest. Twenty-four-hundred acres of pine trees were planted during the Dust Bowl to keep the dunes from blowing away.

Clear-cutting the forest also gives the DNR money to deposit into a trust for public education, although the trees will be cut about 40 years before the end of their life span.

But getting rid of the trees will also allow a more diverse wildlife habitat, a DNR official says.

(DNR area forest supervisor John) Korzeniowski noted that pine trees planted in rows, as in the Sand Dunes State Forest, is in some ways not much different than raising bushels of corn. While the pine trees are high in value, they don’t provide much biodiversity, he said. In contrast, an oak savanna’s value is more difficult to measure, such as habitat for the scarce red-headed woodpecker.

“That gets a little bit harder to weigh,” he said.

Neighbors say cutting the trees for economic reasons is a bad idea that could lead to problems if drought conditions ever return.

“We’ve had certainly periods of time when a lot of small pine trees die off because of even the few months of drought that we sometimes find here,” Ron Geurts said.

But what about the neighbors? Should they have a say in what happens on state land?

“It’s not necessary to disrupt the whole atmosphere of the countryside here because someone thinks it is more economical to clearcut large swaths of forest at one time,” Ron Geurts said.

Steve Carr lives adjacent to the state forest and frequently sees wildlife when he skis or snowshoes. He’s set up cameras on the trails on his property and frequently catches photos of deer and bears.

“It’s kind of why we live where we live,” he said.

Carr said some residents are worried about the effects of the clearcutting on the ecosystem, while others are concerned about health impacts from burning. Since the lands are public and purchased with public tax dollars, “we should have a say what goes on,” he said.

The Sherburne County Board of Commissioners voted yesterday to oppose the plan, the Times said.