On the Cutting Edge

By Greg Seitz, Belwin Conservancy Communications Partner

Sometimes, saving a forest means cutting down a few trees. That’s what Belwin land managers were doing this winter, when approximately 100 red pines were cut from a planted stand near the Belwin Education Center.

While trees have many important benefits for the environment, human health, wildlife, and more, such homogenous, human-planted plantations create an unnatural landscape, providing limited habitat that’s prone to disease. When there is little diversity in species or the age of the trees, the ecosystem’s natural resilience is degraded.

In this case, pine bark beetles infested the cluster of trees, killing them and threatening the rest of the woodland. The affected trees were all in very sandy soil, which may have stressed them, and left the pines susceptible to pests.

Their needles slowly turned brown, fell off, and left only the naked pines standing.

It’s hard to lose trees, but the project illustrates Belwin’s commitment to restoring healthy landscapes. By cutting and destroying the infested pines, Belwin could prevent the spread of the beetles, and make important steps toward our goals.

In that way, it’s emblematic of Belwin’s proactive strategies, and ability to take action.

Landscape library

There are two components to Belwin’s strength: knowledge about how to control invasive species and other pests, and the resources to do it. Or at least, some of what is necessary.

The constant work we do lets us restore and manage many acres of different types, but like the rest of our land management colleagues, there are always more threats than time and money.

That’s why we work smart, to accomplish the most we can. It makes Belwin a valuable resource for anyone dealing with the same challenges.

“There’s a community that Belwin’s a part of, sharing information about land management,” says Justin Sykora, Belwin’s land manager. That means Belwin’s staff members are some of the first to know when new pests are identified in the surrounding area, and when new strategies for combating them are developed.

In Belwin’s case, the organization has about 1,400 acres, a diverse array of ecotypes from prairie to lowland forest, and decades of experience managing it for natural character. Because Belwin is a private nonprofit, it can also experiment with new land management techniques, where public agencies are usually more restricted to traditional methods.

In this way and others, Belwin is a leader in crafting the future of conservation. While most of society’s attention seems focused on protecting new lands, Belwin’s work highlights the importance of maintaining and managing what we already have.

Sykora stresses that there’s no need to wonder about how to manage many pests anymore. “We know how to do it, we just need the resources to deal with it,” he says. “There’s a lot of desire for these lands to be healthy.”

For example, with the widespread harm caused by invasive species such as buckthorn, Sykora says it’s critical we start controlling pests as soon as they are identified. That means staying up-to-date on what is showing up, spending time on the landscape to look for infestations, and knowing what to do when we find it.

And of course, there’s the constant buckthorn battle.

Restoring resilience

Restoring native habitats is important for several reasons, including the long-term health of humanity’s only home.

Invasive species tend to drive landscapes toward monocultures of some sort, areas with very few different forms of life. Buckthorn wants everything to be buckthorn, shading out almost all other trees, grasses, flowers — anything. It even spreads poison into the soil from its roots, killing other plants. Belwin has also seen areas where black locust trees have taken over, choking out everything else.

Those uniform landscapes are susceptible to many perils, and when something fatal comes along, the whole area may be reduced to barren ground. In the eastern United States, where Emerald Ash Borer insects first devastated the ash forests, the bugs are finally dwindling because they ate themselves out of house and home. The insects may be gone, but so are the trees.

It all could add up to an Earth that is unhealthy, and less welcoming to life.

“We’re doing it for humanity, but we’re also doing it for those plants and animals that have been here, should be here, and are threatened by these invasive species,” says Lynette Anderson, Belwin interpretive naturalist and land management assistant. “We’re helping create a place for vesper sparrows and Henslow’s sparrows, because our job is to speak for those species.”

And sometimes, ensuring at-risk creatures have a place to live means having to cut down some trees.

Pine progress

To control the pine bark beetles, work to remove the infested pines this winter was done in the deep snow. Belwin staff knew the trees had to be cut in the winter, and destroyed by chipping and burning before spring arrived, to prevent the beetles from spreading any farther.

“If we let those trees die and fade away, the bark beetles will reproduce more, and they will attack other trees,” Sykora says. “If we remove the infested trees and other stressed trees surrounding them, it will slow the progress of the pest.”

While pine bark beetle are native to Minnesota, and so are red pines, it is the human influence on their relationship that causes trouble.

“In a pine plantation, all the beetle’s needs are right there,” Sykora says. “Food and shelter and breeding habitat.”

Red pines may be the Minnesota state tree, but they don’t usually grow in thick stands where all the trees started growing at the same time. When all the trees are the same age, if something happens that stresses one, like drought, it’s probably going to stress them all. This makes them vulnerable to insects, fungi, and other pests.

Knowing this, the team took chainsaws and tractors to the woods, and started restoring some of the land’s natural resilience. Sometimes, saving an ecosystem means cutting some trees, or poisoning invasive species, but when done right, the land will be healthier in the long run.

Please join us at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, June 1 at the Belwin Education Center for a discussion about red pine management.


Belwin Conservancy is committed to staying on the forefront of new and incoming invasive species, and being a resource for our surrounding neighbors and community. Some of the resources we use include: