Greenwood green-up: planting trees in the ashes of last year’s fire

Planting trees in the ashes of the Greenwood fire

Partnering with the Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota planted 150,000 trees across 300 acres in the area burned by the Greenwood Fire.

On August 15th, 2021, the Greenwood fire was detected within the Superior National Forest, approximately ten miles southwest of Isabella, MN. Started by lightning, the fire was fueled by extreme drought conditions, high winds, and fire weather.

“Driving up, you could see that it was just totally black on both sides of the road and the trees didn’t look like trees anymore. Just burnt,” said Two Harbors Firefighter Rick Skoog.

The fire burned over 26,800 acres, with nearly 9,600 acres being burnt on federal public lands. Approximately 70 homes, cabins, and structures were destroyed as around 48% of the burn occurred on private lands, spanning over 12,900 acres.

Most of the fire-related closures have since been lifted. A Burn Area Emergency Response team was deployed by the Forest Service in October 2021, after fire personnel determined a low possibility of further fire movement. The team assessed immediate land stabilization needs and is still monitoring forest recovery.

In March 2022, the Forest Service harvested forest products killed by fire on the Kawishiwi District. The Nature Conservancy then planted 150,000 trees across 300 acres of Forest Service, state, and county-managed lands this spring.

“Fire is a natural part of the landscape. It is actually good for the landscape. It helps cycle some of the nutrients back into the soil. It starts the natural regeneration process of some tree species, and it makes for a healthy, young, resilient and diverse forest,” said Kawishiwi District Silviculturist Keely Drange. “When a fire comes through, most of our forest is going to recover on its own. But there are some areas that need our help, and with that we have reforestation activities like planting seedlings and some aerial seeding to help kind of boost some of the natural regeneration process that’s going on in our area.”

It can take decades for mature trees to grow back after a fire, but there are signs of forest recovery.

“We’ve already seen a lot of shoots of Aspen. They’re coming up pretty strong and are balsam poplar,” said The Nature Conservancy Resilience Forestry Manager Chris Dunham. “I saw some black-backed woodpeckers here the other day.”

Reforestation after a fire this large also gives The Nature Conservancy the chance to help the forest by planting diverse species.

“Our forests have been simplified over time. Historic logging was really focused on extraction rather than stewardship of the natural resources, and then we’ve had just follow on effects from that historic logging lack of seed source. Then that leads to a simplified forest, and a simplified forest is a vulnerable forest,” explained Dunham. “If you look out and you only see one or two tree species that are featured on the landscape, then that forest is going to be in trouble if something wipes out one of those species. So we look at especially a situation like the Greenwood Fire, we’ve got this opportunity now to change the trajectory and reintroduce some of those important species like white pine that might be projected to do well with the future climate.”

Planting the trees was just the beginning of the reforestation process.

“We have been monitoring how they’re doing this summer,” said Drange. “This spring or next spring, we will go out and find the seedlings and take a brush cutter and open up around them so that they have more of a chance to get sunlight and nutrients to them, give them that success that they need to grow up and become adult trees.”

This is just one of several projects for The Nature Conservancy.

“Our efforts really ramped up about five years ago,” said Dunham. “Our goal by 2025 was to plant over 8 million trees across public lands in northern Minnesota. We’re already very close to that. We’ve planted 7 million trees towards that goal of 8 million.”

Other projects include the MN Moose Habitat Collaborative, improving forestry along Highway 61, and working on trout streams in North Shore watersheds.

“Despite the challenges with climate change, the challenges that we face in the forest, we do have those partnerships in place and we have the expertise to really try to tackle these at a large scale,” said Dunham. “There are certain things that we know that we can influence, and we’re going to continue to do that. And we’ll be out here next year planting more trees.”