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Landowners, conservationists worry MNDoT will 'clear-cut' trees along Lake Country Scenic Byway

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to remove trees from the Smoky Hills State Forest before it resurfaces Highway 34 in 2023.

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Willis Mattison is opposed to the planned road resurfacing project along Highway 34 in the designated Lake Country Scenic Byway area that will remove trees from Snellman to near Osage, Minnesota.
David Samson / The Forum

OSAGE, Minn. — A road project that calls for removing trees along one of Minnesota’s most picturesque byways has landowners and conservationists concerned and calling for a different approach.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to thin the trees along the roadway and will hold a virtual public meeting about it this week to seek input.

The project, estimated at $9 million, will resurface Highway 34 in an area between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids in the summer of 2023.

The stretch is part of what’s known as the Lake Country Scenic Byway, one of 22 designated roadways in the state.

Matt Davis, co-president of the Prairie Woods Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a longstanding conservation organization, said the scenic byway shouldn’t be treated like any other road.

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“Once you cut those trees, there's no going back,” Davis said.

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Troy Becker / The Forum

Specifically, the road work would involve a 21-mile stretch from Becker County Road 29 to old Minnesota Highway 225, just west of Osage.

The logging portion along it could start as early as this fall, according to MnDOT.

Willis Mattison owns a home along Highway 34 near Osage.

He’s a professional ecologist who retired as regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and is also a member of the Izaak Walton League.

He said the planned tree removal, especially in a seven-mile stretch from Snellman to Osage that runs through the Smoky Hills State Forest, will significantly alter the character of this scenic drive.

“It would be like a forest clear-cut,” Mattison said.

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Mature trees line the Lake Country Scenic Byway on Highway 34 east of Snellman, Minnesota.
David Samson / The Forum

Joeb Oyster, project manager for MnDOT’s District 4, disputes that claim, describing it instead as “selective logging” or “thinning” of trees.

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Trees are being removed for driver safety and to reduce the amount of chloride used on the road during winter months, especially where the trees shade the pavement through the Smoky Hills State Forest.

Removing them from the south side of the road should allow sunlight to hit the pavement, melting snow and ice and reducing chemical use, which is good for the environment, Oyster said.

Mattison said that intention might seem to have merit, but on further examination, it doesn’t hold up.

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Mature trees line the Lake Country Scenic Byway along Highway 34.
David Samson / The Forum

The premise is based on the assumption that the sun will shine after a snow event, which isn’t a given, he said. Temperatures are generally so cold that sunlight wouldn’t be adequate to melt snow and ice, either.

Also, there will still be shade over the roadway even if some trees are removed because the sun is so low in the winter, Mattison said.

“It’s not well thought out. We believe they should be looking at other methods,” he said.

Speeding, along with distracted and impaired drivers, he said, are larger issues than ice on the roadway.

“There are practical measures that have a higher measure of success than cutting down the forest,” he said.

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Mature trees and winding roads are the attraction of Lake Country Scenic Byway along Highway 34.
David Samson/The Forum

Mattison fears losing the mature pine, balsam, spruce, birch and oak trees in the area that majestically frame the scenic drive.

Climate change is also a factor, he said, because forests need to be intact in order to absorb carbon.

Oyster has met with conservationists and landowners and assured them loggers will retain both young and mature versions of all tree species in the area.

“It’s a balance of safety, environment and budget,” he said.

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Mature Norway pine and spruce trees line Highway 34 along the Lake Country Scenic Byway.
David Samson/The Forum

When trees are removed as part of a state project, it’s usually done by the road project contractor, and the state has no control over what’s done with the trees afterward, Oyster said.

In this case, there is a separate contract for tree removal. MnDOT hopes the trees will be used for lumber under that agreement, he said.

MnDOT officials in the Detroit Lakes office will hold a virtual public meeting on the project Wednesday, Jan. 12, at 5:30 p.m., with time set aside for questions following the public presentation.

More information on the project and access to the virtual meeting link can be found on MnDOT’s website at www.dot.state.mn.us/d4/projects/hwy34/.

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