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Feature

An aerial view of a Minnesota forest.

An aerial view of coniferous and deciduous trees in northern Minnesota.

Finland and Minnesota share forestry knowledge

Ecologists at the U are working toward biodiversity on both sides of ocean

By June Kallestad

From eNews, May 18, 2006

Northern Minnesota has deep cultural and ancestral roots to Finland. But there's more we share.

Our forests of pine, spruce, birch, and aspen--and the logging trucks that regularly roll by--are familiar to both regions. Finland's economy, like Minnesota's, leans heavily on its forest-based industries. And Finland's long history of intensive forest management holds valuable lessons.

The University of Minnesota, Duluth, Natural Resources Research Institute's Gerald Niemi has been nurturing a relationship with Finnish ecologists over the past two decades so that those lessons aren't lost. Maintaining sustainable forests and biodiversity well into the future is the goal on both sides of the ocean.

Conifers--scotch pine and spruce--are the trees of choice for Finnish industries, and they grow these species very successfully. Intensive forest management, along with improved genetics and weed control, has led to a dominance of coniferous species in Finland. Minnesota, on the other hand, has focused most of its recent attention on deciduous trees, primarily aspen.

"It's an interesting contrast," says Niemi, director of the Center for Water and the Environment at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI). "The ecologists in Finland are concerned that there aren't enough deciduous trees because intensive forest management has removed many of the aspen and birch trees. Here in Minnesota, ecologists are concerned that there are not enough conifers."

Finland also has a history of managing their forests in a "clean" way by removing dead trees on the ground and leaving little debris after logging. But this practice doesn't leave much woody debris for a variety of critters that need it for cover, food, or nesting sites. Finland has a growing list of species that are of concern in its forests and modifications have been, and are being, considered to reverse this trend. In addition, this "clean" forestry method doesn't allow for decomposition of plant matter that naturally regenerates soil nutrients.

"Finnish ecologists would like to incorporate more of what we could call 'messy' forestry, like we do here, into their management," says Niemi. "Coarse woody debris left after a logging operation is very important to many animal species--from small mammals, to birds, to amphibians. It's reasonable to remove some of the slash from a logging site, but the amount depends on the productivity of the site."

Over the past 20 years, Finnish ecologists have made a concerted effort to change some of their forest management practices. They are more committed to preserving old-growth stands by reducing clear-cutting logging methods.

Niemi respects Finland's focus on ecological issues and the many highly trained environmental scientists they have working to maintain their ecological standards. He studied in Finland under a Fulbright Scholarship in 1981 and has been sharing information on these issues ever since.

Niemi has made two trips to Finland in the past year to give presentations on natural resource sustainability and indicators of environmental change. He also sits on an advisory board for UPM Blandin Paper Mill, a global forest products company based in Helsinki, Finland. Jim Marshall, Blandin mill forest resources manager, says that Niemi brings essential expertise in forest birds and other ecological matters to the board.

"Gerald has seen firsthand the company's forestry practices and environmental performance, and is able to observe and comment," says Marshall. "There is truly a huge opportunity to learn from each other, and we're doing that, in both the academic and business realms."

Further strengthening the relationship, Blandin foresters and forest ecologists have also traveled to Finland and hosted Finnish colleagues in Minnesota, discussing forestry practices and biodiversity issues.

"The forest industry is important to the economies of both northern Minnesota and Finland," says Neimi. "But we also want to maintain biodiversity for the health of the forest [and its animals]. The balance of those things--what you cut, where you cut, and what is left in the forest--is the crux of the matter. Finding that balance is exactly what we're doing at NRRI and what Finnish society is interested in, also."