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Loggers with logs

The effects of logging on Minnesota's north woods are examined in "The Northern Forest," a TV program produced by the University's Bell Museum of Natural History.

Of fire, felling and selling: Northern forests tell their tale

A new Bell Museum production examines how logging, fires and development affect forests

By Deane Morrison

When area public TV viewers tune into "The Northern Forest" at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night (Oct. 18), they'll be treated to the first documentary by a new production company based in the University's Bell Museum of Natural History. Bell Museum Productions' maiden effort is the fifth in the regional Emmy Award-winning series "Minnesota: History of the Land." The series takes a long view of the land Minnesotans call home, starting in the Ice Age and continuing to the present. For its part, "The Northern Forest" pulls no punches about how humans have misunderstood and mistreated the forest primeval and how its survival is often threatened by the actions of those who claim to love it.

Ostroushko in Concert

Musician Peter Ostroushko, who supplied the original music for "Minnesota: A History of the Land," and friends will appear in concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Bell Museum, 10 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis. The band will play selections from the soundtrack in the hourlong concert. Tickets are $20, $15 for tpt members and $10 for Bell Museum members. For tickets or more information, call (612) 624-9050.

"We're using storytelling as a way to convey information about science, the health of our environment and our role as stewards of the land," says the Bell's Barbara Coffin, executive producer of "The Northern Forest." "This series combines the National Geographic style of film with the human storytelling style of a Ken Burns documentary." Bell Museum Productions encompasses a wide range of activities related to the intersection of film with science and nature. Along with making films, the company is sponsoring a monthly Sunday afternoon film series covering topics from astronomy to living "green," and a nature/science-themed film competition. Classes are in the works. Funding for the company comes from granting agencies associated with each project. More information is available from the Bell Museum. The story of Minnesota's northern forest begins with the late 19th-early 20th century loggers and the devastating fires that followed the clearcutting of northern forests. Until mid-century, fires were seen as the unremitting foe of forests, a message driven home by Smokey Bear-type public service announcements. That began to change in the 1960s, when a forester named Bud Heinselman suspected--and proved--that fire wasn't all bad. By rejuvenating forests, fires provided habitat for moose, whitetail deer and wolves. Regular burning also made possible a diversity of tree species by clearing out space for sun-loving trees to grow.

"We're using storytelling as a way to convey information about science, the health of our environment and our role as stewards of the land," says executive producer Barbara Coffin.

But fires, in conjunction with logging, spelled trouble for the majestic and highly prized white pine. Forest clearings are prime habitat for whitetail deer, and the deer love nothing more than to nibble the growing tips of white pine seedlings. Today, the pines are getting help from an unlikely source: Jack Rajala, a sawmill operator. He is helping restore white pines by harvesting trees that might block sunlight to seedlings and also is among those who staple protective caps on the tips of seedlings to protect them from deer. (University researchers are also working to save the white pine.) In the third part of the show, the fragmentation of forests by development comes into sharp relief. Huge demand for second houses and retirement homes in the northern forests induces landowners, both private and corporate, to sell off to developers. As more houses spring up, so do roads and more roads, and soon there is no place that can be called "deep in the forest" any more. Slicing up the forest with roads destroys the services it provides, such as purifying water and supplying oxygen. And as the forest goes, so do the species that attracted people to the north in the first place, like wolves, loons and moose. "What we tried to say in the last story, about fragmentation, is that it really depends on where and how we develop," says Coffin. "We can cluster buildings [in areas already near roads] and avoid fragmenting larger tracts with roads." In the future, Coffin says she hopes to see episodes on prairie wetlands and Lake Superior. Read more about the series "Minnesota: A history of the land."