Forest Service responds to concerns from Gunflint Trail community about burn piles being “extremely large”
Photo courtesy of Rockwood Lodge
Outdoor News

Forest Service responds to concerns from Gunflint Trail community about burn piles being “extremely large”

In late August, WTIP reported that the U.S. Forest Service was planning to burn a collection of large piles of brush, vegetation, and cut trees in the Mid-Gunflint Trail area.

The woody piles are part of a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to thin areas of forest near the Gunflint Trail impacted by spruce budworm. The “fuels reduction” involves thinning stands of balsam and other trees across Superior National Forest that could pose a risk for large wildfires. The piles, located near Swamper Lake in the Mid-Gunflint area, are scheduled to be burned this fall, according to Gunflint District Ranger Joe Mundell.

Mundell spoke with WTIP about the burn piles during a WTIP interview Aug. 24.

Almost immediately after the interview aired, concerns started to pour in from the Gunflint Trail community.

Carl Madsen, a co-owner of Rockwood Lodge, questioned the size of the burn piles.

“I’m confused by the sheer size,” Madsen stated. “Some piles are two stories tall. How are they going to be able to manage those burns without killing all the huge white pines?”

Similarly, Sue McCloughan from Bearskin Lodge, questioned the size of the burn piles, noting that her business on the Gunflint Trail was “very concerned about this plan.”

In response to the concerns raised by the Gunflint Trail residents, Mundell sent WTIP a statement Sept. 7 about the Forest Service’s plan regarding the burn piles near Swamper Lake. The statement reads:

“We intentionally constructed large piles for better burn consumption.  We have found that the larger piles created by machines burn more efficiently and consume considerably more material, leaving less unburnt material that can be visually unappealing in high traffic areas.  While we aren’t always able to create these large piles because heavy equipment can’t operate on steeper terrain or there are too many overstory trees for the equipment to maneuver through, on this site the terrain and number of trees to be left allowed for the use of heavy equipment to construct large piles.

While the majority of the piles are spaced far enough away from the remaining trees, there are some that couldn’t be piled far enough from standing trees due to the amount of fuels, specifically balsam fir. We created the piles as far away from mature red and white pine as possible. With that being said, we do expect some tree mortality within the area.  While most of the pile burning will not affect the trunks of trees, some trees will experience crown scorch in the branches and/or root burn.  If burning results in the creation of any hazard trees that could fall on roads, they will be cut down by Forest Service staff.  We will also be planting pine in the openings in the next several years after the piles have been burned.

Prior to treatment, the area was in the early stages of a spruce budworm outbreak.  For a better understanding of spruce budworm and its effects on Minnesota forests, please see the recent presentation put on by Cook County Higher Education: Understanding Spruce Budworm in Minnesota’s Forests – YouTube.  To reduce the hazards from wildfire, we needed to address the concern of many dead trees that would likely be on the landscape within a few years due to spruce budworm. The stands that we treated had very dense balsam fir, which poses a fuels hazard even without the impacts from spruce budworm, as it can quickly move fire into the canopy where it spreads faster. While weighing options for treating the area, it became apparent that mechanical piling was the most efficient approach and would result in the largest impact in hazardous fuels reduction.”

In related news, the U.S. Forest Service will be conducting several prescribed fires in the Gunflint Trail area Sept. 7 and 8.

A series of brush piles will be burned near Hungry Jack Lake this week, according to the Forest Service. The burns will occur on the north side of Hungry Jack Lake.

Additional fire activity, including igniting burn piles, will take place near the Gunflint Trail and East Bearskin Road. The following prescribed fires are currently scheduled:

Mid-trail Piles (see locations below)–368 acres.

  • Clearwater: 19 acres
  • Quiver: 40 acres
  • Okontoe 1 & 2: 88 acres
  • Hungry Jack: 194 acres
  • Washout: 27 acres

The large piles near the curve in the Gunflint Trail near Swamper Lake will not be burned at this time, according to the Forest Service. Mundell told WTIP Sept. 7 that there is currently no estimated date at this point to burn the piles near the curve on the Gunflint near Swamper Lake.

“Different burn units have different parameters for burning,” he said.