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Chippewa National Forest valuable local asset

U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Kent Connaughton, left, of Milwaukee, Wis., explains priorities such as battling invasive species like the emerald ash borer and responding to climate change earlier this week to the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary. At right is Rob Harper, Chippewa National Forest supervisor and club member. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

The Chippewa National Forest is a gem among forests, says the U.S. Forest Service's regional forester.

"For me it's breathtaking," Kent Connaughton said Tuesday in speaking to the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club on his first visit to Bemidji and seeing the forest from the air.

"I was looking down on spectacular country," he said. "These forests are magnificent. This continuous forest coverage interrupted by these beautiful lakes -- I was really impressed by all of that."

Connaughton came to Bemidji to spend a few days on the Chippewa National Forest and the rest of the week on the Superior National Forest. Stationed in Milwaukee, Wis., he is regional forester of the Eastern Region, which includes 12 million acres of public land in 20 states, from Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean.

Thirty years ago when he started service with the U.S. Forest Service, Connaughton said USFS's goals were to provide industrial raw material and to fight forest fires. "Those things are still valid concerns today, but the ways we do those things have changed somewhat."

As to the wood products industry, "it is extremely important on the supply side that we continue to sustain these forests so that they can provide the services and the products that the population has grown accustomed to," he said. "I'm convinced that can be done. It can be done in a way that protects the environment."

Connaughton says he doesn't believe in criticisms that the "forestry profession is out some way or another to degrade the environment."

Fire protection in the national forests goes back to the 19th century, he said. "Out attitude on how we fight fires has evolved. .... We're going to be treating them differently," he said of especially the large wildfires in the West.

"Rather than throw every available firefighter in the United States at them, we will recognize those opportunities where we can make a difference on the fire and try to minimize the risk," he said.

Deliberate steps will be taken to reduce wildfire risks, he said.

Northern Minnesota, with its abundance of lakes, "is a magnet" for people, Connaughton said. "If you can get here, my guess is that you will come with your family and you may come generation after generation for these magnets of the lakes."

The experience of developed recreation becomes a lifestyle, he said. "The idea that the federal government, the national forest system, can contribute makes really good sense. So I like what it is that I see here."

The Chippewa National Forest is a more developed national park with campsites, hiking and motorized vehicle trails and swimming beaches. The Superior National Forest is more rugged, with areas off limits to motorized travel and logging.

Also unique to the Chippewa National Forest, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, is the multiple ownerships within the boundaries of the forest, including the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

"I hadn't understood the relationship with the Leech Lake Band until I got here," Connaughton said, "and how important historically (it is) and how we get a convergence of a federal-state and a piece of property in the history of the band. I like what I see in terms of the relationship with Rob and his co-workers and the leadership of the band and its members."

He spoke of Rob Harper, Chippewa National Forest supervisor, and member of the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club.

Connaughton predicts that within 20 years "there will be a convergence in our interest in environmental stewardship and services provided to the band and the band's engagement in forest stewardship."

Connaughton told the Rotarians that it is his job to translate Washington, D.C., policy for operations in the field, at national forests such as the Chippewa and Superior. One of those hard-to-translate issues, he said, is climate change.

"You hear about the development of cap and trade, and I'm wondering as much as you are about how that will unfold and influence forestry," he said.

The American public poorly appreciates the services and benefits of conservation forestry, he proffered.

"Most people figure that all you've got as a private landowner or as a state or as a federal landowner are wood products. They're important, but they aren't the only services we provide," he said. "The idea that you have a healthy environment leads to environmental services associated with clean water, recreational opportunities, a natural environment that gives us the lungs of the world."

The government tends to regulate in that direction. "Regulation is thou shalt do it this way or get in trouble for not doing it that way, only I'm not going to pay you to do it, yet I the citizen am the beneficiary of it," Connaughton said.

Mitigation for climate change and greenhouse gases, mostly that coming from car exhausts and smokestacks, is a benefit that isn't well recognized, he said. "It amazes me that in Congress there are people who refuse to recognize the important connection between the forests of this world and their ability to mitigate these kinds of gases -- they capture carbon dioxide.

"Not only are they (national forests) a machine to capture, they are a machine for us to sequester it for long periods of time," Connaughton added.

As a machine, all parts of it must work, meaning the sustainable harvest of forests is also important.

"In California, we're going to produce lots and lots of tailpipe emissions," he said. "As it moves across the United States, it gets captured by our forests, If I can harvest those forests and reforest that land in an appropriate environmentally responsible way, as food products and as paper products, they can capture the carbon as well as the forests. Therefore we have a throughput, we interrupt that throughout."

A young forest captures more carbon than a forest that has reached a steady state, he said. "If I can harvest that forest, I can then take that carbon that's been captured and keep it in a captured condition elsewhere, and grow a new forest."

The efficiency of the machine of the forest diminishes in terms of its carbon sequestration ability if not allowed to be harvested and reforested, he said. "It just becomes a bank vault instead of enhancing their abilities to capture carbon."

Members of the Minnesota Congressional Delegation understand that process, Connaughton said.

"Forestry is not only right for this country, its economy and all of its communities, it's really right for the environmental future that people don't even know exists now in these places," he said, adding it's his hope that people develop an environmental ethic that is already present in northern Minnesota.

Connaughton labeled as the greatest threat to national forests, aside from wildfire, is from invasive species which, given a foothold, could devastate the landscape. He was critical of environmental groups which constantly use the courts to delay timber harvests or question the interpretation of rules and said they're focus would better be appreciated in efforts against invasive species.

The controversy was good to settle out prosperity of communities, providing industrial raw materials, conservation of species, protection of wildlife habitat and provision of watersheds, he said.

"But right now the threats are not so much the public controversies as they are from the silent viruses that are sweeping across the landscape," he said. "The invasive species are not on the minds of a lot of our environmental groups ... I'm really concerned about the emerald ash borer, the consequence of Dutch elm disease, the decline of the American chestnut."

That, and the march of the zebra mussel across the Great Lakes, "will fundamentally change our environment."

Most threats can be mitigated but not eliminated, he said. "We're going to have to learn how to live with it, and that's going to lead to some declines in populations of critters that we've really grown accustomed to."

"Those courtrooms aren't going to solve those problems," he added. Having those who don't understand "surrounded by citizens whose environmental awareness would match your intuitive feel for your connection with the world, with your set of ethics, you wouldn't have to go to court to attempt to resolve disputes over policy issues."

He doesn't begrudge those who go to court in the public's interest, "but let's get some agreement on what the public's interest is first," Connaughton said. "It isn't that we want to give all things to all people, it's just recognizing that core of the health of the forests are in fact the brass ring to reach for."