Feds withhold conservation funding over DNR logging practices

By: - August 14, 2023 6:00 am

US Forest Service Photo

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is withholding more than $20 million in conservation grants over concerns the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is allowing logging in sensitive wildlife habitat.

“The DNR has acknowledged that it sold logging permits without providing the necessary advance documentation of the habitat purpose of the sales,” according to a letter from acting FWS regional director Charles Traxler to DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen. The letter was obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental watchdog group.

It’s the second time this month a state agency has been rebuked for failing to adequately protect public resources: Earlier in August the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the Pollution Control Agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in granting mining company PolyMet a permit to discharge polluted water.

At issue are timber sales on publicly owned wildlife management areas and aquatic management areas. The withheld conservation grants stipulate that any logging in those areas must be done primarily to improve wildlife habitat. The grants are funded in large part by license fees paid by Minnesota hunters and fishers. 

Experts within and outside the agency have alleged that recent DNR forestry decisions have prioritized commercial timber industry interests over wildlife, conservation, climate and other needs.

“We applaud this action by the Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. taxpayers should not subsidize Minnesota’s backward and destructive logging practices,” said PEER executive director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney. “It is outrageous that the Department of Natural Resources was using habitat restoration funds that would degrade the very habitats they were supposed to enhance.”

In a joint statement, the DNR and Fish & Wildlife said that “grant funds will be released and timber sales for habitat purposes on WMAs and AMAs will resume once we reach agreement [on documentation issues], which is expected in the coming months.”

Under a management plan adopted in 2018, the DNR annually sells 870,000 cords of publicly-owned timber to the private forest products industry, which uses it to make paper, wood products and other goods. Roughly 12% of that timber is harvested from state wildlife management areas. By law, any timber harvest in those areas must be done primarily to improve wildlife habitat.

In 2019, a group of DNR experts wrote a memo to Strommen warning that the timber plan was not sustainable from a wildlife habitat perspective. 

“We do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year timber plan is ‘beneficial to wildlife’, especially on (wildlife management areas),” the staffers wrote. Among other concerns they noted:

  • Hundred-year-old oak stands near Bemidji targeted for logging;
  • Clearcutting of tamarack forests near Crookston;
  • The eradication of some old-growth aspen forests near Duluth;
  • And the virtual elimination of some old-growth forests in the Red Lake WMA.

For the moment, the DNR has paused timber sales on wildlife management areas while it works to address the FWS requirements. In a separate statement, the DNR noted that annual timber harvest in wildlife management areas has decreased slightly since the management plan was adopted.

Strommen told the Star Tribune she has “zero concerns” that the agency will be able to provide documentation showing that WMA logging is done primarily for wildlife purposes.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.