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Brad Nelson of Nelson Logging in Hermantown uses a grapple skidder to move logged birch trees into position so they can be sawed. Nelson was logging east of Cotton. Minnesota DNR Commissioner Ton Landwehr says changes in leadership in the DNR's Forestry Division are being made to try to get timber to loggers and mills more quickly. (2008 file / Duluth News Tribune)

Minnesota DNR shakes up forestry department with transfers

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The state's top two foresters were removed from their jobs last month in a major shakeup at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

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DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Dave Epperly, Forestry Division director, will be transferred within the division while Bob Tomlinson, assistant director, was transferred into the DNR's Division of Lands and Minerals.

The changes were announced to DNR staff but weren't made public at the time.

Epperly will remain on as acting director until a replacement is found in a national search, Landwehr told the News Tribune on Monday. He said there was no crisis in the division or shift in philosophy for the state's forestry management efforts.

Landwehr said some of the changes, including moving from two to one assistant division directors, began before he became commissioner early this year. But he added that a change in leadership was needed, especially to more quickly get timber from state lands through the pipeline to loggers and mills.

"Our primary effort was to continue to use Tom and Dave's skills but at the same time look for a new state forester to really kick things into gear," Landwehr said. "It's becoming clear we're going to have to do more with fewer and fewer foresters. And we needed some new leadership, some new blood, to get that going."

Landwehr said Epperly will continue to work on refining the state's forestry management plan while Tomlinson will move into a position that will oversee a strategic assessment of the state's forestland holdings, namely whether sales or trades should be pursued with county and federal agencies. Assistant division director Wayne Damerow will continue in that role.

The state's forestry division turned 100 years old this year and now oversees 58 state forests that cover 3.9 million acres, much of that in Northeastern and north-central Minnesota. The division is the single largest manager of timber land within the state, bigger than even the U.S. Forest Service.

DNR staff has been working to make more timber available with less paperwork and delay for the state's timber industry, which has been hit hard by falling demand and falling prices as the global recession lingers.

With private landowners withholding their trees, hoping for higher prices in the future, and federal cutting regulations more strict, Landwehr said northern Minnesota's timber industry is more dependent on state forests than ever.

"It's become clear in my 10 months (as commissioner) that we are inextricably tied to the (timber) industry, both to get our land managed and to provide them. We are their preferred source of wood," Landwehr said. "This is not an effort to necessarily cut more wood, or to in any way avoid sustainable forestry practices. ... But we think we can get things moving through the system a lot faster than we have in the past."

There are no obvious candidates to fill the positions at this time and a national search is under way for the top spot. The director oversees about 495 employees and a $73 million annual budget, according to the DNR. The division has had to absorb budget cuts from the state's general fund in recent years.

Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Forest Industries group, said his members worked well with Epperly, a former St. Louis County land commissioner, and that the change was unexpected.

"We've been very happy with Dave Epperly's work at DNR forestry. I don't think anyone saw this coming," Brandt said, adding that several states are looking for forestry directors. "It may be a while before they find someone."

State land has become popular for deer, grouse and bear hunters; birdwatchers; and ATV riders. But the land is primarily managed for cutting trees for the state's wood-products industry.

There has been little public attention paid to state forestry issues in recent years, but that hasn't always been the case. In the 1990s, a push for more tree-cutting for a growing number of mills created rifts between environmental and timber interests. Lawmakers intervened and paid for a landmark study of the entire state's forest resource -- an inventory of sorts that also looked at logging rates and the ecological consequences of logging at current and expected cutting rates.

In recent years, however, many mills have closed and the industry has downsized. The latest challenge for the state's forestry experts hasn't been too much demand, but too little. Cutting across all of the state dropped from a peak of 4.6 million cords in 2006 to just 2.7 million cords last year.

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