Adaptation as Acceptance: Toward a New Normal in the Northwoods

Acceptance is all about adjusting expectations. Saving the great Northwoods might mean transforming it.

We Minnesotans love our Northwoods. They conjure memories of majestic conifers, cool shade, the piney scent of needle-strewn paths. Add a lake and a canoe, and that’s quintessential “Up North,” home to those forests so deeply embedded in our cultural identity and core to our natural resource-based economy.

Grief is Personal—and Professional

Wandering the woods as I do, both on and off the job, I can’t remember a time when my love of Minnesota’s forests wasn’t accompanied by a sense of loss. I bushwhack my way through today’s runty regrowth all the while grieving its diminishment, comparing it to the towering grandeur of pineries past.

Now climate change has stealthily set in motion a hundred little things that together will almost certainly render northern forests of the future unrecognizable. Confronting this new reality rerouted my professional journey as well as my worldview. In hindsight, that circuitous path looks very much like grieving—first over the loss of those great historic pines, and ultimately over letting go of the idea that we could fully restore our Northwoods.

Famously described by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a process with five recognizable stages, grief is nonetheless deeply personal. My own process toward acceptance of a profoundly changed Northwoods has spanned years. Over this time the personal and the professional have become increasingly intertwined.

Denial: Resurrecting the Northwoods

More than a century of logging and forest management has homogenized the piney woods of old. A once-diverse expanse of multi-aged forests gave way to an aspen-dominated landscape skewed toward younger generations of trees. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with young forests, they lack the type of complexity that many wildlife species depend upon. Young, species-poor forests also store less carbon on average than mature or old forests. And having fewer species leaves them far more vulnerable to emerging stressors like climate change and new outbreaks of insects and diseases. Having a diverse mixture of trees lowers the risk of losing a whole forest ecosystem due to threats such as Dutch elm disease or an emerald ash borer outbreak.

Researchers have long been tracking the changes in these northern forests. Painstaking analysis helped a small cadre of forest scientists—Francis Marschner (1930s), Bud Heinselman (1970s), and Lisa Schulte (2000s) to name a few—visualize how the landscape looked at the time of Euro-American settlement. In their times, each pored over historical records from Minnesota’s original Public Land Survey (PLS), the first comprehensive government land inventory, which took place between the mid-1800s and 1909. The PLS surveyors collected vast amounts of data, including detailed information about tree species and sizes as well as narrative descriptions of the landscape and vegetation.

More recently, Minnesota DNR ecologist John Almendinger has compared the PLS data from the pre-logging era to that of modern day Forest Inventory and Analysis data (US Forest Service). He concluded that in upland habitats, long-lived northern conifers—think white pine, red pine, northern white cedar and white spruce—been reduced by as much as 50-75% in every major upland forest type since the pre-logging era. Lowland habitats have also experienced losses, although the picture is more complicated. Tamarack, for example, once the most abundant tree in Minnesota, has suffered major population declines following Euro-settlement.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners selected 24 planting sites for the new “Conifer Strongholds” project. These sites have cooler than average microclimates and topographic features, such as north-facing slopes and lakeshore environments, that can help sustain conifers into the future even as the climate warms. Photo ©2017/Christian Dalbeck Photography

With the decline of boreal tree species comes the loss of wildlife species that depend on them. Most notably, scientists have documented dwindling populations of area-sensitive species, such as forest-dwelling hawks, songbirds, amphibians and invertebrates. For example, Gerald Niemi, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has collaborated with other ornithologists studying birds that depend on northern spruce-fir forest habitat in the US. “We have observed declines in many species, especially Neotropical migrants, such as the Connecticut Warbler,” Niemi said. “Many of these species are facing multiple threats and have a very precarious future.” Between 1995 and 2017, monitoring results from the Chippewa and Superior National Forests also indicate mean annual declines for several bird species, including Swainson’s Thrush (-3.6%), Olive-sided Flycatcher (-4.48%) and Evening Grosbeak (-5.37%). Results of other recent work showed that species such as the Connecticut Warbler have an affinity for large patches of upland coniferous forest combined with lowland black spruce forest, but are negatively associated with upland deciduous forest. Long-lived conifers also provide critical thermal cover in both summer and winter for species such as moose and Canada lynx that have a narrow range of thermal tolerance.

Agencies, nonprofit organizations and industry came together through a forum provided by the Minnesota Forest Resources Council and produced its first plan for restoring long-lived conifers to the forests of northeastern Minnesota in 2003. Many, including The Nature Conservancy, answered the clarion call in a straightforward way. If it was conifers the Northwoods lacked, then by gosh we’d plant them back. Plant we did. Nature Conservancy crews first swept across federal, state and county lands of northeastern Minnesota in spring, 2004. Since that time we have planted thousands of acres at hundreds of sites, culminating in millions of conifer seedlings lovingly placed in the ground, each one a brave little green flag of hope. We were bringing back the great Northwoods. Or so we thought.

Anger, Bargaining and Depression: Restoration Thwarted

Turns out, we were underestimating the degree to which climate change would disrupt our ambitious plans. We were forced to question the prospects for these newly planted seedlings under warmer, and likely drier, growing conditions. Many of our classic boreal trees are already at the southern edge of their ranges—conifers such as white spruce, black spruce, tamarack, red pine and jack pine and hardwoods like paper birch and aspen.

To find out whether our restoration goals were still valid, we turned to ecological modeling. Nature Conservancy scientists teamed up with University of Wisconsin-Madison and Portland State University to “grow” forests 200 years into the future—albeit on their desktops. Because northern forests grow so slowly, and waiting around for a century is too long for most of us, modeling is a great tool for gaining insights about possible future scenarios for northern forests.

Using LANDIS-II, a spatially explicit forest ecosystem model, the team looked at how forest cover and composition could change over time under different climate warming scenarios—and whether current management tactics could influence the outcome. To our dismay, the models confirmed a likely retreat of classic northern tree species such as paper birch and white spruce and the expansion and eventual dominance by more southerly species like red maple and sugar maple. Even more disturbing, under the modeled high emissions scenario, the warmer, harsher conditions pointed toward high mortality rates for boreal trees—and a consequent loss of forest cover.

I was forced to face the awful truth. We could not resurrect the great Northwoods. Not now. Not ever.

I had been standing on grief’s threshold for years, experiencing the comfortable encirclement of denial. With a now-firm acknowledgment of the Northwoods’ demise, the door swung open and I stepped inside grief’s labyrinth.

I raged. Global efforts at curbing carbon emissions had largely failed. The world’s leaders, and first and foremost my own nation, lacked the will to reverse the greatest threat to nature and humanity of our time. People’s lives and property were at stake as climate summits came and went, along with a great deal of quibbling and droning on about scientific consensus, or lack thereof. My anger simmered below the surface, interfering with my ability to think about what to do next.

Crew boss Sergio Villegas Moreno, gives final instructions before the planting crew spreads out to set their seedlings into the ground. Photo ©2017/John Gregor

I bargained. Not in any literal sense, and not with a higher power—but I became intensely focused on culpability and blame. If those early timber barons had been less greedy, if they had had more regard for future generations, we could have avoided this fix. If my colleagues and I had worked harder, faster to restore a resilient Northwoods. Or, if the policy makers could simply get their collective act together and curb emissions, maybe the Northwoods really could rise again.

I despaired. Climate change was bearing down on the Great Lakes region, and the evidence was all around us—the sylvan dregs of a once mighty Northwoods. Every spring the pervasive pink in the understory reminded me the red maple seedlings are ready to ascend to dominance in the canopy once given the chance. Mature aspen trees bear the scars of extreme weather events, such as crown damage sustained in recent ice storms. Aging paper birch stands along the North Shore continued to degrade into an unrecognizable shrub-scape. So this was what we would be left with. What was the point in continuing our conservation and restoration work in the Northwoods? We could see where things were headed. We could not bring the boreal forest back from the brink.

Adaptation as Acceptance: Reimagining, Reconstructing

Acceptance is all about adjusting expectations. For me, that meant embracing the notion that to “save” the great Northwoods might mean transforming it.

On the job, our conversations shifted to keeping the “woods” in the Northwoods as the climate warms. Compared to the shrubland or grassland that could be where our northern ecosystems are heading, forests sustain a way of life and provide critical benefits to both people and nature: water quality and supply, timber products, carbon storage and wildlife habitat. To keep those benefits, we would need to bolster the ability of millions of forested acres to adapt to the disruptions of a changing climate. Science would help us get there. Hypotheses generated by our ecological models had to be tested with real field experiments to determine if we were on the right track.

It is one thing to talk about “embracing change.” How that actually translates to forest management and restoration is quite another. Fortunately, The Nature Conservancy was not alone in this endeavor. The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) had just developed a first iteration of a regional Climate Change Response Framework, “a collaborative, cross-boundary approach among scientists, managers and landowners to incorporate climate change considerations into natural resource management.”

Using the Framework, we decided to play to our strengths. We knew how to plant trees and were doing so on a bigger scale every year. What if we shifted our planting away from the usual suite of boreal species?

We decided to test new planting mixes skewed toward native species that are also adapted to future conditions. With a broad transition potentially underway to red maple and sugar maple, we wanted to introduce more diversity—to include red oak and bur oak, currently present in northern Minnesota but relatively uncommon, as well as white pine, an old favorite and one of the most common tree species in the pre-Euro Northwoods. Our funding partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society, made the work possible by taking a chance on our adaptation project through a lead grant from its Climate Adaptation Fund.

In addition to adjusting our seedling mixes, we added another new twist: we pulled genetic planting stock from a wider geographic range. Genetically speaking, we veered from the “local is always best” philosophy that is so deeply ingrained in conservation and forest management. Comparing survival and growth of seedlings from distinct seed zones in Minnesota—including seedlings originating from warmer, drier parts of the state—seemed prudent in this time of great change and uncertainty. In all, we planted nearly 110,000 seedlings on a variety of federal, state and county lands across northern Minnesota.

Seedlings of tamarack, white pine and white spruce fill the canvas bag of a worker ready to plant them in the ground. Photo ©2017/John Gregor

We worked closely with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, including Julie Etterson, professor of biology, along with her graduate students and undergraduate workers. This collaboration made it possible to monitor the early growth and survival of our young seedlings. Four years later and all three of our experimental species have survived well. Preliminary results also suggest that oak seedlings from farther south may have traits that boost survival. They leaf out earlier in the season, helping them take advantage of more growing days. And their thicker leaves help them cope with warmer temperatures and drier conditions.

This early evidence that the conservation community may be able to help northern forests make a broad transition to an uncertain future was reassuring. But our team still felt uneasy about writing off northern conifers altogether. After all, amidst the signs that the woods are already transitioning, we continue to see pockets of young spruce and fir.

Successful climate adaptation in the Northwoods—indeed climate adaptation anywhere—requires us to deploy more than one strategy. As we continue to talk with agency partners about facilitating adaptation through introducing climate-adapted species mixtures and genetics, we have also started incorporating the idea of “conifer strongholds.” That’s right. We are circling back to restoring climate-sensitive boreal tree species.

Although boreal trees will likely continue to decline across much of the region as the climate warms, northern Minnesota is a diverse setting with its complex pattern of landforms, soils and even climate variation. Although the prevailing trend appears to be a regional shift to oak-maple-basswood forest dominance for the foreseeable future, it may be possible to sustain northern conifers in places that have cooler than average micro-climates, north-facing slopes and relatively moist soils. With new funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Conservancy is now working to identify a variety of such “strongholds.” If boreal conifer seedlings truly fare better in these settings, spending scarce funds in these places could be a wise investment. The new project began this spring and will continue through 2018. During that time, we will plant upwards of 100,000 conifers seedlings on resilient sites to test this idea.

Change is Hard

This is not to say there isn’t a fair amount of resistance and dissent—even within the conservation community. For example, some respond that instead of intervening to facilitate transition to a landscape dominated by a variety of temperate species, we should simply let nature take its course. But the climate is changing so rapidly that it is already outpacing nature’s ability to adapt. A helping hand is needed if we want to maintain our forested landscape. Others say we are wasting our time on adaptation, or worse—that to engage in helping nature adapt is tantamount to giving up on curbing emissions. I view this as a false choice at a time when mitigation and adaptation are both critically important. Another critique equates planting conifers to sustain pockets of Northwoods character over time with creating living museums. The Nature Conservancy is banking on a “both-and” strategy. Retaining northern conifers as part of the Northwoods fabric increases options for the future as well as sustaining critical habitat for the wildlife that depends on them.

Grappling with adaptation solutions has cheered me up considerably. A feeling that surged with despair has morphed into something closer to empowerment over the years. I enjoy talking with friends and colleagues about the Conservancy’s adaptation work because these conversations often engender hope. Yes, we are talking about loss of the Northwoods as we know it, but working toward a “new normal” is worthwhile.

Tools for Embracing Change

As we work toward a new normal in the Northwoods, the good news is that we have a number of great resources to help. Here are some favorites:

Strategies and action planning:


Communication and public engagement:

Information and learning:

This article appeared first in Agate Magazine.

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  1. Jim (James) William Larson says:

    Hi Meridith, this is Jim Larson. I do not think I have seen you since your book signing a few years back but I think we crossed paths at the UU Church recently. I read this article with great interest as I pay attention to tree stuff and have now been retired from St. Louis County Land Department for 14 years. This is a quick report on my tree planting since 2005 up the north shore. I know it’s only a tiny piece of a large effort.
    Vis Pore tree mats were used at all plantings. At Lutsen Resort Properties 1500 balsam fir and 1500 white spruce were planted spring 2006. The balsam fir did not due well with less than 50% survival and heavy deer browsing. The white spruce has about 80% survival and is finally putting on faster growth. Caged white pine has only had about 40% survival which is probably due to shade under-plant and drought stress. I have replaced many. Over 100 caged white cedar have been planted over the years an have over a 95 % survival rate. Many cedars are now growing well over the tops of the cages.
    I attended one of the North Shore Forest Collaborative meetings perhaps three years ago. I listened intently to your presentation on “adaptive” forestry in conjunction with “restoration forestry”. The following spring of 2018 I planted over 150 red oak and bur oaks in 6 foot tubes on two properties; one at Lutsen Resort and the other on an open hill about a mile back from Castle Danger. I have had less than 5% mortality and some of the oaks are topping the tubes. I also planted caged white pines and cedars, white spruce at Castle Danger with similar results reported for Lutsen.
    To change the subject, do you and Ethan have a certified Monarch waystation at you place? If so I would be interested in showing it. I have been doing a secret Monarch way-station tour for the last two years and are looking for new sites. This is a self-directed driving tour. If this even happens, it is likely to be on Saturday August 8th. Let me know if interested.
    Meridedth, I am still grateful that you included me along on a few trips to the Encampment Forest property when I was still working for the county. I tell people a bit of history about it every time I drive by. I know it is now in a land trust status?
    Thank you and hope you and Ethan are well through this difficult time.

  2. Meredith G. Bleifuss says:

    Dear Meredith, First, we share our first names! I got mine on October 9, 1935. It’s nice to know that it is generational.

    My husband Rod and I have been members of the Nature Convervancy for many years. I caught only part of the recent story on MPR about NC actual planting trees in Northeast Minnesota. Then I watched the video: Minnesota: Preparing the Northwoods for an Uncertain Future. Good! NC actually taking “ground-breaking”. acton is impressive!

    The local chapter of the Izaak Walton League in Grand Rapids is considering a program on Climate Change and our Northwoods. We will be looking for speakers. Would you be interested discussing your involvement with Nature Concervancy? Brian Palik, a researcher at North Central Forest Experiment Station in GR, has compiled a 30 minute video on projections of what may be ahead for us. I can forward it to you if like.
    Do you know others who feel passionately about this subject and are willing to discuss it?

    Sincerely yours,
    Meredith G. Bleifuss
    20839 N. MIshawaka Shores Drive
    Grand Rapids, MN 55744

  3. Kris Driessen says:

    I invite you to my 33 acre forest. It has been left natural for over 1/2 century. In our lakes area we have had many blowdown storms in the past few years. I had pressure and more pressure to tidy my forest after major blowdown. It didn’t look pretty from the road. From my research on forests repairing themselves, I resisted over and over. When forests are logged or “cleaned” up after storms, they also remove the entire forest floor and the makings of nature repairing itself. Birds and mammals, still loved my unsightly forest, Foraging for food and new habitats. We cleared my trail by hand, got bushy pine tops on the ground, and let nature do the rest. Two years later it is flourishing. Seeds were replanted in the area they were used to growing. I now have a variety of pines 2 ft. tall. The mosses, ferns, oaks, maples, mushrooms, lichens, wildflowers now have a chance and continue to thrive. Other areas nearby, “cleaned” up and were left with sand and gravel. Poplars are not picky so basically that is what fills in those cleaned up areas. Less forest management, more natural forests. Less monocultural forests, stronger healthier natural forests. Don’t underestimate the interconnectedness of a forest. Love your forests and what they do for you!

    1. Meredith Cornett says:

      Yes. We had a similar experience with the July 2016/2017 storms on our own property (80 acres, mostly wooded) and our response to the downed trees was nearly identical to yours. Natural disturbances are a critical part of forest ecology in Minnesota and across the world. For starters, downed wood alone provides so many different services in forest ecosystems and is frequently overlooked. And the light created by gap formation allows whole new species groups and age cohorts to arise. It is difficult to mimic these effects with harvesting and timber stand improvement activities–and let’s be honest, commercial forestry operations rarely attempt it. The amount of forest land where natural processes are the prevailing force are very few and far between these days. And with climate change effects in play, one could argue that such places no longer exist, even properties like yours and mine are not exempt.

  4. Mary Miller says:

    I own a 9 acre piece of property in Itasca County with shoreline along Smith Lake near the town of Marcell. I would be very interested in planting some seedlings that you think would be appropriate for the site. Some of it is north-facing along the lake and is relatively undisturbed, but I will be adding some native species to parts of the property where there is more disturbance. I have one or two old white pines and several young ones who do not yet show signs of white pine blister rust. If someone could come and assess the site, I would be willing to buy the species that you recommend and plant them myself. As I worked for 25 years for the Natural Heritage Program at the DNR (and as Welby Smith is a good friend who could help me monitor this small restoration), I am hoping I could contribute to your research on climate adaptation strategies in northern Minnesota.

    1. Meredith Cornett says:

      This is great! How inspiring, Mary. I’ll suggest a couple of things. First, white pine is likely to do well under most future climate scenarios, so any efforts you can make to foster natural regeneration (protecting from browsing, blister rust pruning etc.) would be beneficial. Hard to go wrong with white pine. I also encourage you to take a look at the New Climate Change Tree Atlas, which could provide some insights into what species you might want to encourage on your site based on current and likely future conditions We call this “adjusting the planting palette” to make climate-informed selections for your project.

  5. Kris Driessen says:

    Climate change and warming temps are responsible for our declining forests? I say DNR forestry management and loggers are our biggest problem. Their focus is making money. I live in north central MN. We have occasional warm winters balanced by extremely cold winters. Our waters are not warming. They vary with the ice out date like they always have. Concerning forests, I can tell you my observation. Monoculture forests are vulnerable. There is no support system without diversity. We have had many blowdown storms in recent years. What you call climate change, I call mismanaged forests.

    What is your best response to handling “blowdown” after storms in large forest area? The DNR would say clean it up to prevent disease and forest fires.
    I have 33 acres of unmanaged forest in Minnesota. Virtually everything there is growing naturally, not planted by humans. Two years ago we had major blowdown that resulted in uprooted, snags, and downed trees(about 80% of the property). The forestry, DNR, loggers, and tree trimmers were like vultures. Forest fires and disease were their threats and sales pitch. But I disagreed with them and did not cave to their reasoning. From what I’ve read, a natural forest is healthier and will recover faster than managed. Mine is diverse. Red, white, and Jack pines. A few spruce and a small number of Balsam Fir. Oaks, poplars, maples, many native berry bushes. I googled benefits of downed trees-holding moisture to the ground, habitats for animals, rotting logs make a perfect medium for tree seedlings. These are some of the benefits. I have mosses and wildflowers not seen in other places in the area. There is so much more to a forest than trees. Many birds and animals still loved the damaged forest and were there to foraged and eat bugs. None of this can be done by letting the loggers come in to clean up which included the forest floor. I have read 86% of forest fires are caused by humans, not lightening (and most of our storms seem to have changed to extreme winds and rains, with minimal lightening. Tree diseases often hit weak or monoculture forests, so I basically ignored their worries. I cleared my trail and cut the bushy end of the pines so they were laying on the ground, not letting them air dry to be a potential fire hazard. Two years later my forest is thriving. Many tree seedlings are thriving. Local areas that were “cleaned up” were left with bare dirt for a year and are now filling with poplars. Gone were the seeds for possible reseeding. Gone were the mosses, ferns, and wildflowers. The understory is gone, unable to shade the ground, hold moisture, and allow seedlings to grow without drying out.
    We have had several blowdowns since that original harsh one in July of 2015. A local nature park did cave to the timber people this year and what is left is bare sand and gravel. What animals would live there? None. What mosses, ferns, pines, wildflowers, lichen, mushrooms, club mosses and pines will grow there naturally? None. Most likely another prolific poplar forest.

    1. Meredith Cornett says:

      Yes, it is well documented that Minnesota’s forests are less diverse–in terms of age, species and spatial patterns–than ever before. You are right that this lack of diversity leave them more vulnerable to climate change and related stressors. And northern forests in particular are at risk because many of the most common tree species (today and historically, such as paper birch and white spruce) may not be able to persist into a warmer future. I encourage you to take a look at the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science’s website. Check out the demonstration projects, where there are some truly innovative examples by the Superior National Forest, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and northern county land departments. Scaling up from these demonstrations is where hope lies.