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Nature Conservancy to plant 100,000 pines in cool spots in northern Minnesota to withstand climate change

DULUTH—The Nature Conservancy announced Tuesday that it will plant 50,000 conifer trees in Northeastern Minnesota this summer, and another 50,000 next year, in coolspots — cooler microclimates in Northeastern Minnesota where the trees might survive the impacts of climate change.

The group is planting white spruce, white pine, jack pine and tamarack to create "conifer strongholds" where the native trees can thrive even under the warmer, sometimes drier conditions projected for the Great Lakes region.

Minnesota temperatures already have risen from 20th century averages and some scientists say global climate change will raise mean annual temperatures in Northeastern Minnesota another 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the next 50 years.

That kind of climate will favor some warmer weather species like maples and oaks but hinder species like spruce, tamarack and fir. The News Tribune in March first reported results of a study by the Woods Hole Research Center that show many trees common in forests across the eastern U.S., including Minnesota and Wisconsin, won't be able to keep up with the current pace of climate change.

Abundant conifers support a wide range of native species of wildlife including migratory songbirds, great gray owls and moose. Conifers also are valuable to the forest industry as pulpwood and lumber.

The Conservancy has picked about 30 stronghold sites covering 400 acres for planting this spring. They are on recently harvested public land, ranging from about 5- to 70-acre tracts, said Mark White, forest ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota. The sites are cooler, such as north-facing hills or areas near Lake Superior.

The sites also are geographically and biologically diverse and usually connected to areas already protected from development so conifers that do take hold can grow and disperse their seeds.

Eli Sagor, manager of the University of Minnesota's Sustainable Forests Education Cooperative manager, said the Nature Conservancy project "is very focused on looking at the future of North Shore forests and being proactive about identifying opportunities to conserve native species, to conserve native ecosystems, and to think a little bit differently in a forward-looking way about what we need to do now to maintain forest health and productivity into the future."

Preserving tracts of big evergreens also is a big part of quality of life and tourism in the region.

"When you look at northern Minnesota, you don't think of oak and maple trees," Sagor noted. "You think about spruce and pine, the iconic giant red pines and white pines."