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Forest for the Trees

How Humans Shaped the North Woods

Jeff Forester

Publication Year: 2009

Author Jeff Forester describes how humans have occupied and managed the northern borderlands of Minnesota, from tribal burning to pioneer and industrial logging to evolving conceptions of wilderness and restoration forestry. On the surface a story of Minnesota's borderlands, The Forest for the Trees more broadly explores the nation's history of resource extraction and wilderness preservation, casting forward to consider what today?s actions may mean for the future of America?s forests. From early settlers and industrialists seeking the pine forests' wealth to modern visitors valuing the tranquility of protected wilderness, the region known today as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has offered assorted treasures to each generation. By focusing on the ecological history of the BWCAW's Winton watershed, Forester shows how the global story of logging, forestry, conservation, and resource management unfolded in the northern woods of Minnesota. The result is a telling exploration of human attitudes toward wilderness: the grasp after a forest?s resources, the battles between logging and tourist interests, and decades of conservation efforts that have left northern Minnesota denuded of white pine and threatened with potentially devastating fire. The result of a decade of research, The Forest for the Trees chronicles six phases of human interaction with the BWCAW: tribal, burning the land for cultivation; pioneering, harvesting lumber on a small scale; industrial, accelerating the cut and consequently increasing the fire danger; conservation, reacting to both widespread fires and unsustainable harvest levels; wilderness, recognizing important values in woodlands beyond timber; and finally restoration, using prescribed burns and other techniques to return the forest to its "natural" state. Whether promoted or excluded, one constant through these phases is fire. The Forest for the Trees explores how tribal people burned the land to encourage agriculture, how conservationists and others later fought fire in the woods by completely suppressing it, and finally how scientific understanding brought the debate full circle, as recent controlled burns in the BWCAW seek to lessen significant fuel loads that could produce fires of unprecedented magnitude.

Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiii

In September 1991 I began the research for an ecological history of northern Minnesota, but my association with the region began at birth. My great-grandfather was one of the first emigrants to northern Minnesota, a Cornish mining engineer who hiked over the Vermilion Trail to begin the digs at Tower. I remember going for long walks with ...

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pp. 3-9

Colonial Americans stood on the eastern rim of a remarkable platter, a cornucopia heaped with riches: minerals ranging from gold to the world’s most valuable iron, wild game for both food and fur, the astounding Atlantic and Great Lakes fisheries, plains with rich topsoil three feet deep, waterways for shipping and power, coal and oil for fuel, ...

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1 Rock,Water, Tree

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pp. 11-23

This is the story of the changing of a landscape, the Arrowhead of Minnesota, and how that landscape changed us. It is difficult to study the ecological history of the BWCAW without looking at the human history there, for the two are symbiotic. Karl Marx recognized this in Grundrisse, writing, “As societies try to remake nature, they remake ...

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2 Pioneer Lumbering

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pp. 25-39

The summer of 1846 was the second warmest of the nineteenth century. July, August, and September had more than sixty-four days of rain. The Irish sky imposed upon the earth, leaden gray and low hung, the air moist and warm and heavy and diseased. These combined conditions created the perfect habitat for a newly arrived Peruvian potato ...

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3 The Cut Increases

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pp. 41-66

Louis Hopkins was a regular at Duluth Land Office auctions, a familiar face at the registrar’s, an astute, affable, and aggressive collector of pine tracts north of Ely, as far west as Lake Vermilion and east almost to Knife Lake. Financier George Swallow was from Wilmette, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. These two men would be responsible ...

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4 Lumberjack Life

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pp. 67-85

A product of the American frontier, boomtowns rose with the raucous, rowdy, and lawless splendor of new settlements beyond the ken of civilization. Blooming suddenly and with great flourish, they disappeared just as quickly, collapsing beneath the weighty veneer of civilization as the frontier became settled. Winton was one of the last ...

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5 Labor in the Northland

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pp. 87-100

American ideals underwent a profound metamorphosis and reorganization as the twentieth century approached. Laissez faire fell from favor. In addition to revised policies regarding disposal of the public domain, lumbermen on the Winton watershed had to contend with a changing labor situation. Despite the largest social aid program ...

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6 Conservation Gains Traction

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pp. 101-122

The industrial phase of land use drew to a close as the large timber companies pulled out of the northland, leaving in their wake collapsed tax rolls, shuttered mills, widespread unemployment, and ravaging wildfire. The next phase, conservation, was an attempt to mitigate ...

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7 Foresters Under Fire

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pp. 123-140

Midway through Winton’s peak year of production in the border lakes, on February 13, 1909, President Roosevelt established Superior National Forest, almost a million acres of rock, water, and tree scattered along the U.S.–Canada border, from Lake Superior in the east to Rainy Lake in the west. In contrast to the president’s far-sighted gesture, public opinion ...

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8 Defining a Wilderness

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pp. 141-154

After the lumber companies abandoned the border lakes in the 1920s, tax rolls collapsed. Denied the revenue and jobs logging had brought, Winton felt the pain of recession years before Black Monday spelled out the impending bust to the rest of the nation. Despite a nearly 1,209 percent increase in the pulp and ...

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9 The Big Blow Down

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pp. 155-172

In the end, the greatest ecological damage to the BWCAW came not from the lumberjack but from the well-intentioned fledgling foresters trying to reestablish a timber industry, from their ambitious tree-planting campaign and their remarkably effective fire-suppression programs. ...

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pp. 173-191

September 16, 2002, was a perfect autumn day in the Boundary Waters: the sky clear, relative humidity about 50 percent, winds light at less than ten miles per hour. Quicksilver dewdrops clung to amber leaves and drying grass. Nearly all of the cabin folk had closed up and gone home; the resorts were mostly ...


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pp. 193-199


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pp. 201-205


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pp. 207-214


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pp. 215-216

E-ISBN-13: 9780873517607
E-ISBN-10: 0873517601
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873516501
Print-ISBN-10: 0873516508

Page Count: 260
Illustrations: 30 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1