• Start-up
  • Planning
  • Action
  • Evaluation
Staff from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota-Duluth collaborated to address the impacts of forest health and climate change on a property adjacent to a high-quality trout stream in the northern headwaters of the Knife River watershed on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. The team used the Adaptation Workbook to consider climate impacts and to develop adaptation actions appropriate to this site.

Project Area

Located in the northern headwaters of the Knife River, the 358 acre project area contains the only naturalized wild steelhead trout population in Minnesota. The project parcel contains 1.5 miles of the West Branch Knife River with no natural barriers preventing fish migration. The parcel is on state-owned lands that have been set aside as Minnesota School Trust Land, where forests are managed to generate revenue for the Permanent School Fund. Forest cover on-site primarily consists of paper birch (Betula papyrifera), bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), other hardwoods, and balsam fir (Abies balsamea).

Management Goals

Management goals are to sustainably manage timber to generate revenue for the Permanent School Fund, and to protect water quality. Stands throughout this parcel have declined in recent years largely due to age-related succession of paper birch and aspen. Spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) outbreaks have occurred on balsam fir stands and other forest health issues are present. Primary project objectives in the following 5 years included responding to forest health concerns and maintaining forest cover, particularly conifer cover.

Climate Change Impacts

Information on the potential climate change effects and vulnerability of forests in Northern Minnesota (Handler et al, 2014) was used to identify potential climate related risks to forests on this property. The team used their knowledge of this parcel to identify how larger-scale projections may interact with on-site biophysical characteristics to aggravate existing forest health issues and accelerate water quality degradation. For example, shallow, rocky soils with relatively low soil-water field capacity are a dominant site characteristic, meaning that snow strongly influences aspects of the hydrologic regime such as soil moisture and stream temperature. The team determined changes in precipitation and snowmelt represented the greatest climate change related impacts to site hydrology.
Increased warming is projected to contract the duration of winters
Altered the frequency of winter freeze-thaw cycles
Increase frequency of rain-on-snow events
Reduced seasonal snowpack depth and retention
Changes in precipitation and snowmelt may result in more frequent overland flows
Some boreal species on-site are projected to lose suitable habitat by end of century (Handler et al. 2014)
Longer growing seasons likely to increase forest pest life-cycles and pathogen infestations were also considered long-term risks for this site

Challenges and Opportunities

After defining important site-level impacts and vulnerabilities, the team evaluated the long-term feasibility of meeting the state mandate to manage this parcel for economic output through sustainable forestry, and the provision of clean water through the end of century. The team identified climate-related challenges and potential opportunities for the site (shown below). Overall, the team determined property-wide goals were feasible into the long-term, but would require added focus and attention in the near-term.


Overland flows can initiate or aggravate erosion and worsen water quality in the adjacent trout stream (immediate and long-term risks for this site)
Warming winters poses the largest risk to achieving goals in the short- and long-term


Past forest health issues have opened gaps in the canopy that expose the forest floor to greater wind and solar radiation, altering snowmelt timing & runoff. Managing disturbed areas to enhance productivity may maintain function as boreal species decline

Adaptation Actions

The team were most concerned with projected changes in the site’s snow-driven hydrology and the associated potential for an increase in erosion (decrease in water quality), which was reflected in their choices of strategic approaches to adaptation. Project participants used the menu of Forested Watershed Strategies and Approaches to develop several adaptation actions for this project, including:

Harvest 173 acre (scheduled for 2018) to regenerate paper birch and aspen, reserving all white pine yellow birch, cedar, tamarack, black spruce and white spruce below 9-inch diameter limits.
Harvest and retain key species on-site to improve soil conditions, and buffer risks related to changing precipitation patterns and extreme events.
Accelerate timing of plantings post-harvest (scheduled 2019). Plant a diverse mix of native species and species expected to be adapted to future conditions
Prior to seedling establishment and growth on-site, use strategically retained conifers to shade snow that may reduce the rate and timing of snowmelt
Use coarse woody debris to deflect and intercept snow melt to reduce erosion of open sites and reduce delivery of turbid waters to river
Increase riparian area management areas, reserving a larger areas around wetlands and seasonal pools.


The team are collaborating with the University of Minnesota-Duluth to define a monitoring plan that measures the effectiveness of forest management actions, beginning in 2018-2019. Monitoring plans thus far include:
Observe site productivity and retention of snow over time by conducting vegetation surveys to evaluate forest regeneration post-harvest
Conduct snow cross surveys to evaluate snow depth and snow-water equivalent
Conduct water quality observations will evaluate turbidity associated with overland flows and soil loss
Observe stream discharge, peak flow and duration using existing stream gauge near site

Project Documents

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Forest threats
Water resources

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