Proposed Vegetation Management in the George Washington PinesDec 06, 2018 10:43AM ● By Editor
The Gunflint Ranger District is proposing a series of vegetation management actions in and adjacent to the George Washington Pines Recreation Area associated with the Kimball Vegetation Management Project. The purpose of these actions is to promote short- and long-term forest health and resiliency while maintaining high-quality recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, and effective wildland fuels management.
In developing the proposed vegetation management in George Washington Pines, we recognized the importance for managing for multiple forest objectives including forest health and scenic values. Best management practices and Forest Service research define scenic areas as ‘possessing high ecosystem integrity’, where the harmony of a landscape can be defined by its resiliency over time. The activities proposed will have short-term visual impacts, but will ensure long-term viability and sustainability of this recreation area.
The name “George Washington Pines” refers to four red pine plantation stands in close proximity to the Gunflint Trail, on the site of an old homestead that was transferred to the Superior National Forest in 1929 and planted by the Boy Scouts in 1932. Adjacent stands of aspen-birch forest provide cover for a majority of the ski trail that winds through the recreation area. Distinct and separate vegetation management treatments are prescribed at both the pine plantation stands and the neighboring aspen-birch forest. Each of these areas have different forest types and management needs.
Natural processes are already at work creating changes in the George Washington Pines plantation stands. In summer 2017, a Forest Service forest health pathologist performed a site evaluation and found thatthe red pines had widespread symptoms of a needle fungus called Sirococcusshoot blight. Sirococcusis not usually fatal to mature trees since shoots typically afflicted are older and in the lower canopy. However, under several years of continuous infection, these shoots die and reduce the live tree canopy’s growth and ability to defend against other insects and diseases. This evaluation aligns with observations made by community members and local forestry specialists; these stands are exhibiting stressed crowns and low growth rates similar to other mature red pine plantations in the area. The objectives of the George Washington Pines treatments are intended to increase light, nutrients, and water availability for stressed pines. Thinning around them and planting will establish a two-age canopy structure and greater species diversity as some older red pines inevitably succumb to mortality.
Proposed management activity in the pine plantation stands include variable density thinning and planting seedlings. Variable density thinning refers to a silvicultural practice where portions of the stand are thinned and harvested in small gap openings. Pine and spruce seedlings would be planted in the newly-created gaps. The end result seeks to mimic natural disturbance processes, and to form a more diverse, multi-age forest structure as opposed to a single-age plantation.
In the surrounding stands containing the recreational ski trail, the forest type is mostly aspen, birch, and balsam fir with mixed conifer that originated after a series of 4 wildfires between the years of 1927 and 1932. As these stands are now approaching 100 years old, the aspen-birch component is decaying and dying and the understory vegetation becoming dominated by brush and balsam fir thickets. There is very little aspen, birch, and spruce regeneration. Due to concerns over impacts to scenic and recreation values, we have delayed or limited management activities over the last twenty years. The result is an aging forest with unnatural accumulations of dead and down fuels and overgrown understory.
A natural forest pest, spruce budworm, is currently spreading to Cook County. If left untreated, the majority of aspen-birch stands in the George Washington Pines vicinity will regenerate to balsam fir (the preferred host of spruce budworm) over the next 10-20 years. The visual impacts from this current infestation could be more dramatic than what occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s because the dying aspen and birch will have fallen from the overstory, leaving a greater majority of infected and dead balsam fir. In terms of fire hazard risk, balsam fir is the species we are most concerned about– they burn quickly and provide ladder fuels that can move fire into the canopy. A greater abundance of balsam fir coupled with spruce-budworm-infected trees will greatly increase the fire hazard risk in the aspen-birch stands within George Washington Pines.
To best protect this area, increase the resiliency of these stands, and reduce fuel hazard risk, we are proposing aclearcut-with-reserves treatment to remove the aspen, birch, and balsam fir remaining in the overstory. The term ‘clearcut’ often creates a strong visual image, but the actual prescription is nuanced, with flexibility built into its layout, design, and the types and locations of reserve and/or groups of trees. At this time, a harvest could still be financially viable and designed to retain visuals along the Gunflint Trail and the George Washington Pines ski trail. Using techniques such as meandering harvest boundaries and reserving areas of live trees would create a more aesthetic result. Slash, understory balsam fir, and brush would be removed by conducting a site preparation burn in some of the stands and mechanical treatment in others. The area would be planted to a mix of red, white and jack pine, with aspen regenerating naturally.
Implementation of the proposed activities will occur during the dry, non-winter seasons. Clearcut-with-reserves treatments are only proposed for the surrounding aspen-birch stands, and not in any pine stand associated with the George Washington Pines plantation stands.
Failure to address these matters is already contributing to additional maintenance costs associated with the removal of fallen trees and encroaching brush. Allowing these stands to continue to decline will increase long-term management costs and the quality of the recreational experience will suffer. With no action, visitors could expect to see an increase in short-term trail closures due to falling trees across the trail and, over time, the conditions of the trail system may deteriorate, influencing the sustainability of this trail opportunity.
We understand that George Washington Pines is a beloved recreational area to many in Cook County - we agree. These forests are disturbance-dependent systems and require periodic management to keep them healthy and resilient. Treatments that provide these disturbances often look visually different in the short-term; however these areas would be better-suited to withstand wildfire and insect disturbance that could otherwise drastically transform this area with a continued hands-off approach. We are committed to managing for the preservation of George Washington Pines’ ecological integrity, and believe that healthy forests are scenic forests.
More information about the Kimball project can be found on the project website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54279. An online interactive map, displaying the proposed actions can be found here: https://goo.gl/p29ZTi. The public will have another opportunity to formally comment after the completion of the Kimball Project Environmental Assessment, in March 2019. Please contact Marshell Moy, NEPA Planner, at [email protected]or (218) 387-3247 with additional questions.
The Gunflint District Ranger, Mike Crotteau, will be hosting a ski field trip through George Washington Pines on January 19that 10:00am. Individuals interested in the Kimball Project who have questions about proposed treatments are invited to join. Please meet at the George Washington Pines parking lot, ready to ski. Families and dogs are welcome.