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University of Minnesota Crookston students mark 40-year tree planting tradition in Chippewa National Forest

Since 1983, students from UMC have planted more than 206,000 trees under a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

Lede photo: UMC Planters onsite 2022.jpg
University of Minnesota Crookston students and faculty pose at the site in Chippewa National Forest east of Cass Lake, Minnesota, where they planted 2,100 white pine seedlings on Arbor Day, which was Friday, April 29, 2022.
Contributed / Laura Bell
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CROOKSTON – On a dreary Arbor Day with the threat of yet more rain in the forecast, a group of students and faculty from the University of Minnesota Crookston spent part of the day in Chippewa National Forest continuing a 40-year tradition.

Since 1983, students from UMC have planted more than 206,000 trees in the northern Minnesota national forest under a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that today is as strong as ever.

Marking this year’s 40th tree-planting effort were 24 students and friends from UMC’s Natural Resources Club and three alumni, according to Phil Baird, an associate professor of Natural Resources. Baird, along with Lab Services coordinator Laura Bell and associate professor Matt Simmons, rounded out the planting crew.

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The dibble bar tool helped students and faculty from the University of Minnesota Crookston make quick work of the 2,100 white pine seedlings they planted on Arbor Day, Friday, April 29, 2022, in Chippewa National Forest east of Cass Lake, Minnesota. Here, Katie and Alex Engel plant a tree. Katie is the daughter of Phil Baird, UMC associate professor of Natural Resources. She started planting with the crew when she was about 7 years old and came back with her husband to plant for this year's 40th anniversary.
Contributed / Laura Bell

They planted 2,100 white pine seedlings in about 3½ hours at a site in the forest east of Cass Lake, Minnesota. Using a tool called a “dibble bar,” which creates a V-shaped trough when pushed into the ground, the crew was able to make quick work of the seedlings, which the Forest Service purchased from a nursery in Cohasset, Minnesota, Baird said.

“It goes pretty fast,” he said. “There’s not a lot of love and attention given to each one. It’s not like you would see (a garden center) installing a $500 landscape tree.”

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They’ve paddled about 300 miles since launching at Lake Traverse and had “just a little over 100 miles to go” when they hit the river Thursday morning.

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A paper bud cap placed on a white pine seedling helps protect the tree from deer and other critters that might chew on it and kill the tree or inhibit growth.
Contributed / Laura Bell

The UMC crew also removed 3,000 “bud caps” from a stand of trees the Natural Resources Club had previously planted. A bud cap is a piece of paper wrapped and stapled around the terminal bud of a tree to protect it through the next growing season. Besides planting trees in the spring, UMC students make a bud-capping trip to Chippewa National Forest every fall.

After wrapping up their planting work on Arbor Day, many students spent the rest of the weekend at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station to enjoy the outdoors before the start of final exams week.

“It’s just a good time for the students to get to know each other and have fun” before finals week, Bell said. “It was raining pretty much the whole time, but they went on hikes, and they had a great time.”

Taking root

According to Baird, UMC’s partnership with the U.S. Forest Service took root when he attended a state conference of the Society of American Foresters and met Marty Christensen, who was a timber management assistant ranger for Chippewa National Forest based in Deer River, Minnesota.

“We were talking about ways that we could get students over to the forest and maybe do some volunteer work – get some experience for the resumes,” Baird said.

Christensen came up with a list of forest stands where the students could work, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“I don’t think either of us had the intention that it was going to be an ‘every year forever and ever’ type of thing, but fortunately, it’s turned into that,” Baird said. “It really has become kind of a tradition. When former students come back 10 or 15 years later, it’s one of the first things they’ll immediately talk about rather than that great chemistry lab they had years ago.”

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Alumni returning for this year’s tree planting effort were McKena Wilmer and Alec Burklund, who now work for the USFS in the Chippewa National Forest’s Blackduck, Minnesota, district, and Kimie Shiozawa, a Tokyo native who is an interpreter at Deep Portage Learning Center near Hackensack, Minnesota.

Photo 4: Alec Burklund and McKena Wilmer.JPG
UMC graduates Alec Burklund and McKena Wilmer, who both now work for the U.S. Forest Service, were part of their alma mater's tree-planting crew Saturday, April 29, 2022, in Chippewa National Forest.
Contributed / Laura Bell

In addition, Tom Feiro, a retired Lab Services coordinator at UMC who now lives in Montana, planted a limber pine tree on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest on Arbor Day while the UMC crew was planting in Chippewa National Forest, Bell said.

“Tom played a huge role in establishing and continuing the club’s tree planting tradition with Phil back in the ’80s,” Bell said.

Among the students planting trees was Michelle Swyter, a junior from Perham, Minnesota, who gained real world experience last summer as a forestry technician in Chippewa National Forest. Swyter also was among the UMC students planting trees in 2021.

“It’s really nice to be part of a team,” she said. “There’s a lot of collaboration just to get all of the trees in the ground and I think it’s a good experience, especially for the younger students, to realize what it’s like to actually be out in the woods and walking through the brush with the ticks and the bugs.”

Photo 1. Kayla Leibel and Michelle Swyter.JPG
UMC students Kayla Leibel (left) and Michelle Swyter use dibble bars to plant white pine seedlings Friday, April 29, 2022, in Chippewa National Forest east of Cass Lake, Minnesota. Leibel is president of the UMC Natural Resources Club, which undertakes the tree-planting effort through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that this year marked its 40th spring.
Contributed / Laura Bell, UMC

Ellie Hintze, a senior from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and president of the UMC Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society, says working with Forest Service personnel presents networking opportunities that can be crucial to finding jobs, even summer positions such as Swyter’s job last summer as a forestry technician.

“A lot of the students that went on this trip were freshmen this year, so I think it’s giving them a good opportunity to get out and do more hands-on work,” Hintze said. “They’re learning in the classroom, too, but it’s definitely a lot different learning in the classroom vs. going out and doing it – and I think that’s a huge benefit.”

Forest Service perspective

The benefits work both ways, said Audrey Gustafson, silviculturist for the Chippewa National Forest’s Blackduck and Walker, Minnesota, Ranger District.

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Silviculture is the practice of managing forests for wildlife, water, recreation, aesthetics and any other combination of forest uses.

“There are so many positive things that come from this,” Gustafson said. “One is, they’re helping us achieve our mission of reforesting the land – right from planting, reforesting and restoring white pine to the landscape. And then, in addition to the planting part of it, it’s just a great partnership, a great collaboration and friendship for all these years.”

CROOKSTON -- The Natural Resources Club at the University of Minnesota-Crookston was presented with the 2018 National USDA Forest Service Volunteers and Service Award for restoration work in the Chippewa National Forest of northern Minnesota. The...

As a testament to that collaboration, the Forest Service presented the UMC Natural Resources Club with its 2018 Volunteers and Service Award for their years of restoration work in Chippewa National Forest. The award was presented in April 2019 during a virtual presentation by the chief and deputy chief of the Forest Service.

Photo 3: Phil Laura Tom Audrey TreePlanting 2019.JPG
Audrey Gustafson of the U.S. Forest Service (from left), along with Laura Bell, Tom Feiro and Phil Baird of the University of Minnesota Crookston stand outside the supervisor's office at Chippewa National Forest in April 2019 with the Volunteers and Service Award that UMC's Natural Resources program received from the USFS for their longstanding partnership planting trees in Chippewa National Forest.
John Loegering / University of Minnesota Crookston

“There are school forests around, but there’s nothing longstanding like this long-term commitment by Phil and Tom and Laura,” Gustafson said. “Nothing else that I’m aware of.”

Even in 2020, when the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic brought all semblance of normal life to a screeching halt, the planting tradition went on as scheduled, though not quite as planned, Gustafson recalls.

That year, Bell came alone, and the two of them planted trees at separate sites, Gustafson said. Between their efforts and additional plantings by multiple Forest Service employees, 3,000 seedlings were planted in 2020, she said.

“We had an interpretation of our rules that said only one of them could come so Laura came,” Gustafson said. “They did not miss 2020 – we made it happen.”

Photo 5: 2020 Laura Audrey social distance planting.jpg
Laura Bell (left) of the University of Minnesota Crookston faculty and Audrey Gustafson of the U.S. Forest Service practice social distancing in April 2020 while planting trees in Chippewa National Forest during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contributed / Audrey Gustafson

Continuing legacy

With a 40-year tradition of planting trees in Chippewa National Forest to his credit, Baird says he’ll be retired by the time the partnership marks 50 years, joking that Bell “has promised to push me out for the 50th in a wheelchair.”

“It’s not a problem – Phil will be there,” Bell said. “We have every intention to continue working with the Forest Service and continuing our legacy. Over 206,000 trees have been planted by our Natural Resources program and clubs. … It’s pretty incredible.”

The Forest Service – especially Christensen and, more recently, Gustafson – deserves a lot of credit for fostering the partnership and providing UMC students with the opportunity to get real world natural resources experience, Baird said.

“Right now, the number of young people that are looking at going into different natural resource careers is on a steady decline, and agencies are seriously concerned about who’s going to step in and fill the shoes for the future,” Baird said. “I think activities like this, and providing opportunities for students to really make a difference, get the students to confirm for themselves that this is what they want to spend the rest of their life doing.”

Optional secondary photo: UMC planters by Chippewa sign 2022.jpg
University of Minnesota Crookston natural resources students and faculty at the sign east of Cass Lake, Minnesota, marking the entrance to Chippewa National Forest. UMC this spring marked the 40th consecutive year of planting trees in Chippewa Forest under a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.
Contributed / Laura Bell, UMC
Photo 6: Peter Curran.JPG
UMC student Peter Curran plants trees Friday, April 29, 2022, in Chippewa National Forest. This year marked the 40th spring UMC students have planted trees in Chippewa National Forest under a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.
Contributed / Laura Bell
Photo 2. Courtney Vatnsdal.JPG
UMC student Courtney Vatnsdal kneels by the dibble bar she used to plant white pine seedings Friday, April 29, 2022, in Chippewa National Forest.
Contributed / Laura Bell

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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