Senator Tom Saxhaug has wasted no time in getting to work on one of the high impact opportunities identified by participants in the VFVC’s “Seeing the Forest AND the Trees: Making the Most of Minnesota Forests” study tour project.
On October 29, Tom convened a joint hearing of a subcommittee of the Senate’s Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Committee and the E-12 Education Budget Committee to bring the issues of rationalizing ownership and increasing management of Minnesota’s School Trust Fund Lands to the attention of his state legislator colleagues with authority over these lands.
Tour participants Dave Zumeta and Dave Schad and DNR State Forester Dave Epperly laid the ground for modifying management of School Trust Fund and other state lands to improve forest productivity as well as wildlife habitat and to produce more revenue both for schools and for sustainable forest management. Zumeta and Schad began to build the economic and environmental case for the recommendation they and others from the study tour’s School Trust Fund Lands Action Team have developed based on learning and insights gained through study of Canadian, Finnish, and Swedish best practices.
Setting the context for the “Dave, Dave, and Dave presentations” was a presentation by Howard Bicker, Executive Director of the State Board of Investments, on investments and return on investments of the School Trust Fund. Bicker spoke of the Board’s statutory charge to increase spendable income from these trust lands to help offset state expenditures for school aid. Legislators were particularly interested in how and where the funds had been invested, projections for how they might grow and how to calculate risk in a volatile financial environment.
Dave Epperly reported on timber sales revenue from sustainable forest management of Trust lands and how Trust lands contribute to the state’s ecological health, our forest-based economy, and our citizens’ quality of life. Dave Schad described use of site-level forest management guidelines and interdisciplinary landscape planning as essential to achieving forest productivity, wildlife habitat and recreational goals, as well as to long-term economic returns from Trust lands and other lands.
Dave Zumeta proposed increased woody biomass harvests in conjunction with increased timber sales on Trust Fund and other state lands to help meet State Forest Resource Management Plan goals. Harvest sites would include areas within the timber procurement zones of forest industries and the biofuel procurement zones of other forest industries and utilities that use woody biomass for energy, those areas with high risk of wildfire due to high fuel loads, and areas where biomass harvest would help meet wildlife and ecological restoration goals. He clarified that biomass harvesting should not be conducted on lands where such harvesting would have adverse effects on water quality, soils, wildlife habitat, or biological diversity. Following harvest, early and frequent forest thinnings should be used in stands where thinnings would help meet SFRMP management goals and maintain healthy forests. Benefits from these thinnings would include increased wood products, renewable energy,and income to the Trust.
Zumeta told the legislators that increased timber harvest on these lands would help meet the Governor’s Primary Forest Products Industry Task Force goal for increased timber harvest. Harvesting forest biomass on these lands would also help meet the legislature’s “25 by 25” (25 percent by 2025) renewable energy mandate, provide renewable energy for forest industries and utilities, reduce carbon emissions, help reduce wildfire losses, and lower the cost of state and federal wildfire suppression efforts. Zumeta said that by increasing timber harvest (including the use of intermediate harvests) and woody biomass harvest on these lands, near-term and long-term income — including income to the Trust — would be increased, all while improving forest health.
The overall positive response of the legislators and the tone of their questions (about sources of potential opposition, level of demand for woody biomass and positive effects on fire suppression) suggest that the subject has gotten the interest of the legislators positioned to make decisions on the future management of the state’s forest resources.