Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Forest at the Crossroads, and the Boreal Forest Art Project

March 23, 2013

We’ve been taught that Minnesota alone of all the states holds three vast natural regions called biomes.  These ecological communities cross the state diagonally from northwest to southeast: prairie in the southwest, a wide band of hardwood forest and oak savanna next, and the boreal (northern) forest of the northeastern part. But did you know that their boundaries are already shifting northward? The boreal forest is starting to retreat from Minnesota into Canada, and in the Twin Cities we'll have a climate like present-day Manhattan, Kansas by the end of this century.  The characteristic trees and smaller plants, fungi, insects, birds, and other fauna that make up the boreal community are going to vanish from Minnesota.


The boreal forest and its transformation was the topic when Dr. Lee Frelich spoke to our group. Dr. Frelich is a forest ecologist with the 

Universityof Minnesota and is the main science adviser to the Boreal Forest Art Project that Kathy Franzen has organized to document the threatened ecosystem species. Dr. Frelich’s talk and his excellent slides distilled a tremendous amount of scientific findings about factors driving the change and their complex interactions. Barring any unforeseen scientific breakthroughs, by the end of this century Minnesota’s boreal trees like balsam fir, white spruce, balsam poplar, red pine, jack pine, sugar maple, paper birch, and many others will be replaced by trees like red maple and oak, along with their associated ecological communities. Our Boundary Waters and similar areas will become landscapes of hardwood forest and oak savannah.

Kathy Franzen, who hosted the event, described the Boreal Forest Art Project that she has organized. The member artists have created and exhibited images of the most threatened trees, including balsam fir, white spruce, balsam poplar, tamarack, quaking aspen, red pine, jack pine, and others. Currently they’re working on depicting other threatened plants and insects, and eventually will add birds that are part of the boreal forest ecological community. The next exhibit will be in 

Grand Rapids, MN, at the MacRostie Art Center ,Sept. 1 - Oct. 1, 2013. Visit www.mnborealart.com for examples of the art, exhibit information, scientific background, useful links, and a wealth of related information.

Global climate change is no myth. That was Lee’s first message, as he reviewed and dismantled eight myths commonly used to deny that the earth is warming. Our climate is not only warming, it’s also triggering a chain of effects that damage 

Minnesota’s boreal forest ecology: more drought, straight-line winds storms, and fires. Pests and diseases that survive the milder winters are spreading, and an increased population of hungry deer is devouring tree seedlings, as deer replace the moose that are limited to cooler temperatures.

Many of us were amazed to learn from Lee that the spread of earthworms is also driving the changes in the forest. There are no native earthworms in 

Minnesota; they were introduced from Europe. Earthworms spread naturally, but people also accelerate the invasion by dumping leftover fishing bait in the north woods. There the worms consume the leaf litter that protects, cools and moistens the soil and makes it hospitable for trillium and other wildflowers, fungi, and tree seedlings. Lee showed us slides comparing a lush forest floor before earthworm invasion, to a forest floor with bare soil where voracious deer have grazed off the tree seedlings after earthworm invasion.

Lee concluded with photos comparing a present-day Boundary Waters view with an open landscape of oak savannah. By the way, he’s looking for an artist who can create a landscape showing what it will look like when the oak savannah surrounds a Boundary Waters lake. If you have a recommendation for him, you could reach him at freli001@umn.edu.


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