Imagine the BWCA without towering pines — but full of buckthorn

One vision of the BWCA's future: brush land, scrub and buckthorn.
Wikimedia Commons
One vision of the BWCA’s future: brush land, scrub and buckthorn.

It is a ritual. Pull out the canoe, the paddles, the packs and the maps and plan this year’s big route through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. One day I hope to plan a trip to the BWCA with my grandchildren and start a new ritual. I dream of introducing them to the healing powers and spirituality of the northern pine forest.

Then I wake up. I am awakened by the voice of Dr. Peter Reich, Distinguished McKnight Professor and forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota. He is telling me that when my grandchildren are my age, the cathedral of the pines to our north very likely won’t be there.

I feel like I’m being visited by the ghost of the future. Reich takes me by the hand and we float, Dickens-like, over the lakes. I see the familiar shapes. “I think that’s Basswood right below us.” But only the shapes remain.

Dr. Peter Reich
Dr. Peter Reich

Dr. Reich gives me three different views of the future in the BWCA, each one different — each one more stark. In all three versions he shows me, only a few pines remain. One image is a BWCA that looks like Vermont. It is fall and the maple leaves combust in colors of red and orange. It is beautiful. But where are the pines, I ask Dr. Reich. “They are almost all gone,” he says sadly.

He shows me another glimpse of a different future. Instead of a million and a half acres of maple forest, it is savanna and the trees are oak.

The third view makes me weep. It is the BWCA in the time of my grandchildren’s adulthood, and the whole of it is covered with buckthorn. I try to shake myself awake only to discover I am awake and talking to Dr. Reich about his research and awful predictions.

“What is already happening,” he tells me, “is that red maple is moving north. Hickory is moving north from southern Minnesota.” He tells me that the warming climate is behind the northward movement of the hardwoods. “We know it is going to get warmer,” he says. “What we are not sure of is whether it is going to get wetter or dryer. Most likely, it is going to get more erratic.”

Stressed trees
Erratic is not good for pine trees. Like us, erratic home life causes stress. We all know stress can kill.

There is another reason why the pines will go away, he tells me, and says, “It has nothing to do with the climate.” Fire. Pine forests love a healthy dose of fire from time to time. Dr. Reich tells me that fire helps pines regenerate. BWCA pines are not catching fire enough to sustain the forest.

Reich says fires generally have burned from southwest to northeast, but he says: “So many of us like to have our cabins and retirement homes in the north woods, we have suppressed fires to protect our retreats. So the fire from the south doesn’t reach the wilderness area, and the pines are getting old.”

Reich says without the occasional forest conflagration, “the forests will be taken over by less fire tolerant species like birch and aspen. Eventually maples and maybe oak. Their seedlings will sprout in the understory beneath the pines, and without fire, they will survive to replace the pines that have died away.”

But one cause of the pine collapse does have to do with climate change. Deer. Reich says that the deer population in the north is “two to three times the natural carrying capacity.” Deer have moved into moose territory. It has just become too warm for moose to thrive in the BWCA. Moose are moving north.

“Deer love to eat white pine and white spruce seedlings,” Reich says. Warmer climate, more deer, fewer surviving seedlings to regenerate the forest.

“Nature isn’t progressing naturally,” Reich tells me. “The warming climate is pushing hardwoods north, and the dryer, warmer conditions also prevent pine seedlings from thriving.”

How to explain?
A BWCA with no pines? How does grandpa explain what it was like, once? Does he have to take his share of responsibility? Does he lie to the child and say, “That’s just nature.” Will the child even care camping beneath a canopy of maple leaves? Portaging through a savanna? Maybe not.

But buckthorn? How did buckthorn take over the boundary waters in this vision of the future?

Reich explains: “We have put up lots of barriers to dispersal.” Now he is talking about the movement northward of the hardwoods. The trees move their northern boundaries in increments over time. But dispersal is interrupted by highways and towns. “We’ve built roadblocks,” Reich says. “It is going to take longer for the hardwoods to get to the wilderness.”

That leaves a gap in the ecological schedule. The pines have died away before the hardwoods get there. That’s when buckthorn seize the opportunity of the open land.

“When invasive species like buckthorn move in, the natural forest doesn’t have a chance. It chokes everything else out,” he says.

Then he tells me the last thing I want to hear. “In this last scenario, you will have a BWCA of brush land, scrub and hardscrabble,” he says.

The BWCA — the Buckthorn Waters Canoe Area. In its current state the Boundary Waters is the most visited national wilderness area in the United States. It brings millions of dollars in tourist revenue to Minnesota and the small towns on its perimeter. When the grandkids are of an age to pull out their own canoes and packs and to plot their own courses, I wonder if they will want to go north.

Whose fault? Based on Reich’s scientific analysis, probably ours. But we can honestly say that it wasn’t our intention. It wasn’t our intention to warm the planet. We just had a lot of coal and oil sitting around, and we used it to our advantage. We didn’t intend to stop the natural regeneration of fire. We just didn’t want to watch our houses burn down.

It is all perfectly understandable. The grandkids will understand and will patiently look at your photo album of a strange and wonderful place with towering pines that grandpa still calls the boundary waters. “Oh, kids,” grandpa says, “you shoulda seen it.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/28/2011 - 09:08 am.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Don.

    Of course you left out one possibility: that your grandchildren, being the type of small-government, no regulation, “anything goes” libertarians so many of our “conservative” friends and neighbors hope they will be,…

    Will only comment that, the destruction of the boundary waters doesn’t matter because somebody made a whole lot of money causing it,…

    And their only questions will involve discovering where they can find opportunities to make huge amounts of money for themselves while destroying the planet even more.

  2. Submitted by Dean Abrahamson on 06/28/2011 - 09:34 am.

    During the 1980s I ran a climatic change program at the Univ of MN. In 1981 we had a conference that brought together the leading scientists of the day, among them John Firor, Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Among other things John pointed out that continuing emissions of carbon dioxide would change the climate so that “Minnesota would become a sumac world,” that is, the forests would be replaced by brush. We have understood the science and implications of climatic change for a long time, yet have done almost nothing.

  3. Submitted by Linda Anthony-Lee on 06/28/2011 - 10:10 am.

    Could it be that the reason most of our politicians won’t acknowledge that Climate Change/Global Warming is real and happening is the ‘if we just ignore it, it will go away’? Probably more a case of knowing that if you acknowledge there is a real problem, you become responsible to do something about it and nobody wants that responsibility. I will never forget that image of the Native American Indian with the tear in his eye as he watches the rest of us trash the planet. I am just sick that we’re still so busy arguing about whether or not there is a problem that the solution will never be found, much less implemented. Our 7 daughters, 17 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren with 2 more on the way will probably miss out on the BWCA we know now. How sad. How could we waste such a natural beauty of our earth?!

  4. Submitted by Linda Anthony-Lee on 06/28/2011 - 10:12 am.

    Thank you, Don Shelby. This is exactly the sort of journalism you would bring to our MinnPost!

  5. Submitted by John Hakes on 06/28/2011 - 11:37 am.

    And for those who don’t mind ‘keeping the tears flowing’– all he or she needs to do is think of the ridiculous issues that repeatedly barge into the public domain ahead of the civilization-changing effects of climate change.

    Or the real ones that get no real solutions …

  6. Submitted by Janey Klebe on 06/28/2011 - 11:58 am.

    I am glad you took the time to look into this issue. I am a student at the University of Minnesota and I have been fortunate to listen to Dr. Reich speak before. The Boundary Waters has been an important part of my life and rightfully so for most Minnesotans. The BWCA is something that brings us pride, its part of Minnesota tradition. When I listened to him speak on this topic it made me rather emotional. Change is happening in our own backyard and still we see no change in our lifestyles. Thanks Don for bringing attention to this topic.

  7. Submitted by Wilbur Ince on 06/28/2011 - 12:16 pm.

    I found this comment a little ridiculous: “Nature isn’t progressing naturally,”. Nature is the planet reacting to the current situation. The climate is warming from CO2 emissions. If you drove your car this week and last week and the week before, you have an answer why this is happening. YOU are to blame. Stop using so much fossil fuel.

    The real underlying issue is even tougher. We are overpopulating the planet. Check the numbers in Linda’s post and you will see the pressure of over-population. When do we start talking about that?

  8. Submitted by Lance Groth on 06/28/2011 - 05:24 pm.

    Thanks Don, for a great story. You did, however, leave out the root cause of the problem.

    Mr. Ince has touched on the real source of this and most of the major problems facing us: overpopulation. Whether the issue is pollution, habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions & human-induced climate change, poverty, access to clean water, overfishing of the oceans, energy consumption, the global financial house of cards, and on and on, the root of it all is overpopulation. 7 billion is several times more than the planet can sustainably support. The people in the developing world all want the lifestyle we’ve enjoyed in the developed West, yet the inescapable truth is that it would take the resources of 3 or 4 planet Earths to provide it to them.

    Nature doesn’t care about politics or talk radio. Nature is all about numbers. In Nature, 2+2 always adds up to 4, never 3.9 or 4.1.

    The truly sad fact is that we’re not going to do anything about overpopulation, so all of the problems spinning off from it are only going to grow worse. Nature will do something about it, if we don’t solve the problem first ourselves, but Nature’s solution will be ruthless, and savage. I am reminded of a little science experiment we did in high school, seeding petri dishes with bacterial samples swabbed from various locations in the school. The bacterial colonies initially thrived in all their multi-colored splendour – until they overran the petri dish and consumed all of it’s nutrients, whereupon they died, leaving behind a stinking mess.

    I am also reminded of a scene in the movie “Soylent Green”, in which Charlton Heston’s character Thorn witnesses the death of his friend Sol Roth, played by Edward G. Robinson. Sol opts to die by assisted suicide in a government clinic to escape the unbearable truth of the death of Earth’s oceans, the misery of what passes for human life in his world, and the “recipe” for Soylent Green. He dies listening to classical music and watching a video of scenes of an unspoiled natural world that no longer exists. He whispers to Thorn, “See? Didn’t I tell you?” Thorn, mesmerized at the vision of a world he had never known, and with a tear in his eye, mutters “Yeah, you told me. But how could I have known?”

    I sincerely hope, Don, that your grandchildren don’t ever have to echo Thorn’s words.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Submitted by Lance Groth on 06/28/2011 - 07:15 pm.

    You know, an interesting follow-up to the effect of a warming climate on Minnesota’s forests would be its effect on Minnesota’s lakes, and the Great Lakes.

  10. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 06/30/2011 - 06:24 am.

    Mr Shelby,

    As always a very good article, but has been pointed out there is an elephant in the corner.

    The fact is that each of us is pushing climate change a little bit. The vast and increasing numbers of us are a major generator of greenhouse gases.

    Without population control and even some population decline as part of the solution there is likely no way of stopping global warming.

  11. Submitted by Mike Naas on 07/23/2011 - 06:47 pm.

    As Dr. Peter Reich explained, fire is the answer to keep the pines regenerating. Controlled burns could be conducted in the area where pines are desired. For example, burn about 1/40th of the area each 40 years. I was involved as a student in a 4 sq. mile burn during a Univ. of MN environmental science course at the University center in Cloquet MN in 1973. These burns are well run and carefully planned and executed. Using fire, there is no reason why cabins can’t be protected, the park kept full of pines and nature being kept more similar to the past. No doubt Dr. Reicht could provide a quality plan for this type of solution for most of the are being discussed.

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