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Planting trees, planting hope

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A group of fourth-graders put the Arbor Day idea into action last month when they planted more than 1,000 trees on Fond du Lac Reservation property north of Sawyer.

The planting — accomplished this year by students from Barnum, Wrenshall, Moose Lake and Esko — marked the 26th year that fourth-grade students in Carlton County have planted trees to celebrate Arbor Day.

Professionals and community volunteers (among them Ann Rust, volunteer coordinator for Carlton County's University of Minnesota Extension Service and for this tree planting project) taught the students. The students learned how, when and why to plant trees, along with other information about the environment, forests, soils, bugs, and other plants.

The mood was positive and the work productive. It felt good to be there watching the next generation plant trees, to see their excitement to be outside and learn more about nature. What the students didn't realize, though, was that along with planting trees, they were planting hope. And, after the research and conversations I've done and had regarding trees lately, I really needed this "hope" planting! And here's why….

Over the last several decades, millions of trees have been killed by bugs and diseases and these needless deaths are increasing in numbers all across the United States. Minnesota is now being hit by many more “new stresses on our forests that are here and are heading our way," explained Kelly Smith, conservation technician with the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

So, what's killing the trees? And what can we do about it?

Let's start with the white pine, the "grand-daddy of the northwoods," according to

Long gone are the days of the majestic, giant white pines that towered over almost every location in northern Minnesota. Where have they gone? Although thousands of acres of beautiful white pine were lost to decades of intense logging, the white pine still endured and survived and there were always young seedlings waiting in the understory to grow and replace the giants. In recent years, however, those seedlings and the larger saplings have been decimated by exploding deer populations (which feast on the new growth) and by disease.

One of the better known killers of white pine is white pine blister rust. Introduced into the U.S. about 1900, blister rust spread like wildfire, especially in areas where late summers are cool and damp, like northern Minnesota. The blister rust fungus starts as spores that develop on the alternate hosts — currant and gooseberry bushes — and then spread to white pine trees where it creates cankers, or patches of yellowish discoloration, on white pine. Trees that develop cankers on the main trunk, or on branches within four inches from the main trunk, are doomed to die. (However, cankers that are only on branches and are further than four inches from the main trunk can be removed.)

Another killer of white pine is the pine sawfly. Although this sawfly is common and no chemical control is usually needed to save the trees, occasionally the pine sawfly population explodes and they can defoliate and kill white pine plantations.

Other trees in our northwoods have their own problems, too.

The yellowheaded spruce sawfly, which is also naturally common, has increased in population and is causing serious damage and death to spruce seedlings and saplings. Spruce sawfly damage reports in 2015 ranged from the Hinckley to the Virginia areas.

The tamarack and white cedar throughout northern Minnesota have been under attack since 2000 by an eastern larch beetle infestation. While the attack has been really bad in areas northeast of Carlton County, since 2015 the larch beetle has been extending south and west throughout Carlton County and beyond.

Red pine, once the favored tree to plant instead of white pine, is not without its own problems. The pine engraver (bark) beetle is beneficial in helping to take down dying or distressed trees of smaller diameters. However, when logging, thinning or severe storms increase the numbers of dead or distressed trees, the beetle population also increases and they start to attack larger and living red pine. This beetle is the most important bark beetle attacking red pine in the Great Lakes area. In addition to killing red pine, the beetle can also introduce the blue stain fungus which helps the beetle kill the host tree by clogging its water-transporting routes. The "telltale blue stain" left by the fungus greatly reduces the value of the wood for loggers.

Certainly everyone has heard about the emerald ash borer (EAB) that has been spreading in Minnesota since at least 2009 and has now been found on Park Point in Duluth. Minnesota has the highest volume of ash trees in the U.S. About six years after finding EAB symptoms, we can expect widespread ash tree mortality in the surrounding woods. So it won't be long until EAB is found in Carlton County. Native to eastern Asia, EAB was brought to the U.S. in the 1990s in infected materials, and it is still spreading through transported firewood, nursery stock and materials made of ash. The EAB's green beetles live outside of the trees during the summer, but its worm-like larvae live underneath the bark of green and black ash trees and kill the trees by tunneling.

Although large gypsy moth infestations have not quite reached Minnesota from eastern states and central Wisconsin, smaller populations along the North Shore are being controlled at this time through diligent efforts by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). The gypsy moth caterpillars have defoliated entire forests in the east and have caused millions of dollars of damage. The moth is one of North America's most destructive tree pests, especially for urban trees. Carlton County is in the management zone for gypsy moths and Minnesota is part of a multi­state effort to prevent this pest from becoming established here. The MDA has organized a trapping program to continually monitor high moth concentrations, and cooperation from landowners is essential.

Finally, there is oak wilt that has been confirmed in Minnesota in the last couple of years. Spread by insects that carry the spores from tree to tree, oak wilt is responsible for killing whole stands of bur, white and red oaks.

All of this — the diseases and bugs that are killing our trees and starting to decimate huge parts of our forests — has made me wonder if the trees I love will still be around when my grandchildren are old enough to love and enjoy them. I was starting to feel that the situation is almost hopeless. But what can I do? What can we do?

Spending time with these school students made me realize that we can plant trees and thus plant hope. For the sake of our Minnesota forests, we must not only plant harder and longer, we must plant smarter!

Will Bomier, district conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service says letting nature run its course is no longer an acceptable option for those who care about the forests.

"With all these new and existing forest pests and stressors, it has never been more important for landowners and land managers to take an active role in managing their forests for resiliency and health,” Bomier said. “This is especially true because as our forests grow older and more mature, they become more susceptible to these threats. Landowners need to understand that there are significant risks/costs to the 'do nothing' option of land management. Now is the time to start planning conservation practices that can address these issues and keep the healthy trees healthy.”

Landowners have lots of resource to help them. The SWCD, NRCS, MN Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and consulting foresters are all valuable resources for landowners who would like to start preparing and planning for these issues.

SWCD’s Kelly Smith is ready to help.

"Major strategies for forest health include encouraging species diversity and growing trees well-suited for the site," Smith said. (Editor’s note: See the “Helping trees thrive and survive” suggestions from Smith with this article, which includes pointers and resources to help you plant smarter.)

As I was getting ready to leave this year's Arbor Day Tree Planting, I spied three things that gave me the hope I needed. One was the bunch of tree planting bars waiting for someone to use them to plant more trees. The second was the bags of tree seedlings ready for someone to plant them so they can grow into strong, healthy, huge trees. And the last was the bus that pulled up, loaded with more children eager and excited to learn about tree planting and to use those tools to plant those trees.

Being with these students not only put smiles on my face, it put hope in my heart and my mind. These students did their part. They planted trees.

Now it's our turn to get busy planting trees … and planting hope.


Kelly Smith, conservation technician for the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, provided the following tips and online resources for property owners who want to give their trees the best chance at living a long and healthy life:

Taking care of trees

A wonderful tree owner's manual that will help you plant, prune and care for your trees can be found at

For more great information on pruning trees, visit

White pine blister rust

The Minnesota DNR has a great guide that gives additional information on blister rust and how to control it by pruning white pine:


For more information about sawflies, or if you have a severely-infested white pine or spruce plantation, contact forestry professionals at Carlton SWCD or DNR Forestry. However, for small lots or ornamental trees, the recommendation is to knock the sawflies off the needles with a strong jet of water or to spray the larvae when they are less than 1/3 inch long with an insecticidal soup or horticultural oil. The best time to check and treat trees is in late May and throughout June.

Pine engraver (bark) beetle

The Wisconsin DNR have developed a harvesting schedule that shows great signs of success in keeping enough seed trees alive to produce regeneration. If you have a large stand of tamarack and white cedar and are worried about an infestation, contact the MN DNR Forestry or the Carlton SWCD for more information. In an effort to reduce the damage by the pine engraver beetle and the blue stain fungus, the MN DNR Forest Health and Timber Programs worked together in October 2015 to update timber specifications for logging operations. These guidelines specify the dates by which trees must be hauled or destroyed during different times of the year.

Emerald ash borer

Smith recommends landowners reduce the component of ash in forest stands to 20 percent or less of the trees, of smaller trees, and scattered over the stand. In Black Ash stands, where ash dominates, it can be difficult to find a replacement tree species. White cedar, silver maple, balsam poplar, tamarack, red maple, yellow birch, and others are possibilities. The ash must be removed in stages, while replacement trees are established, because removing too many trees at once could cause the soil to become too wet for any trees to grow.

For more information about EAB and how to control it, check out these sites: or

Gypsy moths

To find out more about Gypsy moths: Visit