Loggers began clearing 6,000 red pine trees, many a century old, from a majestic stand in the Superior National Forest on Friday, ending a two-year battle with environmentalists.
Although they failed to save the Little Alfie tract, those on the losing side say their defeat may help bring to the Midwest the kind of passion for forest conservation usually associated with the Northwest and California.
“This is a sort of bellwether for the big picture,” said Ginny Yingling, state director of the Sierra Club. “It’s the first time the public has focused on forestry management issues here like they did in the Pacific Northwest.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service also acknowledged the importance of the Little Alfie tract, so named for its proximity to Lake Alf, as a possible watershed for environmentalists.
“Little Alfie has become a focal point for the much larger debate of whether there should be timber harvests in national forests,” said Mark Van Every, a Forest Service spokesman in Duluth. “That is a policy question that the Congress must answer.”
Tony Vukelich, the sawmill owner who paid $195,000 for the logging rights in 1995, said this week he had no idea environmentalists would choose the Little Alfie pines for a fight. He wanted the wood because it was of good quality and could provide the 14-inch trunks used to build log cabins.
“I knew I was buying high-priced wood,” said Vukelich. “The first I knew there was trouble was when I went in to make a down payment.”
Environmentalists were outraged over the sale because the trees’ average age was 100 years. While that did not qualify as old-growth - 120 years old - environmentalists complained the trees were among the oldest in Minnesota.
“Real old growth in Minnesota has mostly been cut,” says Bridget Hust, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in St. Paul. Only 13 percent of red pines in Superior National Forest are more than 80 years old, and less than 2 percent are old-growth, she said.
In December 1996, environmentalists sued to block the sale. Twin Cities members of Earth First! blocked logging roads and Minnesotans watched the state’s first major logging protest unfold.
Within two weeks the Forest Service suspended the sale and ordered a new assessment of the site.
Late last year, the service decided to protect 2,000 old white pines and 2,000 other red pines that had originally been part of the sale. That move satisfied the Sierra Club and Audubon Society.
But Earth Protector, a smaller Twin Cities group, sued again in federal court to block the sale, bringing more protests.
As environmentalists drove to northern Minnesota to again block a logging road, the people of Orr - where Vukelich’s sawmill is located - went south to show their support for the loggers. They picketed the federal courthouse in Minneapolis and visited the Legislature.
“Loggers by nature are real independent,” Vukelich said. “Before, competing loggers would not share a cup of coffee, now you see them talking. It brought this community together.”
The fight ended earlier this week when a federal appeals court refused to block the logging.
Earth First!, which seeks a zero-cut policy on federal lands, also decided to throw in the towel because of scarce resources.
Friday, Vukelich’s crews went in and began cutting.
Vukelich said about one-third of the cutting - all he plans to do this year - should be done in a week.