Minnesota has every reason to reforest and re-prairie

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, the City of Minneapolis and the city’s Parks and Recreation Board unveiled a $1 million plan to plant 200,000 trees throughout the city. City and Parks officials said that the plan represents a key investment in Minneapolis’s climate action and resilience efforts and in environmental justice.

This program is a good example of one of the best investments that we can make in Minnesota’s future: the restoration of our forests, prairies, and wetlands. Putting money into revitalizing these ecosystems, sometimes mistakenly identified as “non-productive” land, will help reduce and absorb climate emissions, protect our species as climate change continues, and improve Minnesotans’ health by helping to clean our air and water and cool our communities.

The state of our trees

Paul Bunyan may be only a legend, but it’s no exaggeration to say that various activities have been cutting down and otherwise reducing Minnesota’s forests. Forests now cover just over a third of Minnesota’s land area; prior to the ramping up of European colonization in the mid-19th century, it was nearly two-thirds. Trees were cut in vast swaths for timber, farmland, and development, and further reduced by wildfires.

A tree affected by emerald ash borer

Today, Minnesota’s trees face these same old threats along with new ones. Climate change is putting pressure on many of Minnesota’s tree species, especially conifers like pines. Emerald ash borer and Dutch Elm disease have gutted community tree cover, stripping boulevards of vital shade and cooling and forcing municipalities to choose between planting new trees quickly or letting communities get hotter. 

Back to the Minneapolis program – in the overall scheme of Minnesota’s forests, 200,000 trees isn’t much compared with the more than 360 million currently estimated in the state, but this program will have meaningful impacts on the lives of residents. Tree planting under this program using American Rescue Plan dollars will help to reduce the urban heat island effect across the city, and is especially targeted to Green Zones – areas that face concentrated poverty, pollution, and racial, political, and economic marginalization. A recent study found that former redlined areas – predominantly communities of color historically excluded from other parts of Minneapolis – suffer temperatures on average 11°F hotter than non-redlined areas due to a lack of tree cover and proximity to heat traps and sources like highways.

To keep building on this and similar programs, MEP recently worked with our member oreganizations to speak out in favor of legislation funding $11 million to replace ash trees and $8 million for an accelerated conservation tree planting program to help advance this work around the state. As of this time, the fate of that funding is still undetermined.

The once-proud prairies

The tale of prairies in Minnesota is yet another of destruction after European settlement. Minnesota’s tallgrass prairies were once a place of abundant food for the Dakota people, teeming with bison. But after colonizers stole the land and killed off most of the bison, that rich prairie soil was converted to grow crops like corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. These crops feed a lot of people and fuel millions of vehicles, but their repeated planting over generations has stripped the soil of carbon and nutrients – previously held in by prairie plants – and contributed to climate change and species loss. Less than 1% of the prairies that used to cover vast acres of Minnesota remain.

We can’t wind the clock back to 1850, but we can work to restore prairie where possible, and to make cropland act more like prairie in the environmental benefits it provides. Also among the environment provisions MEP and our members support this year is $10 million for the Conservation Reserve Program State Incentive to keep or enroll land in conservation, $30 million for the federally-based Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for similar efforts, and one-time funding of $5 million and ongoing annual funding of $1.25 million for Lawns to Legumes, a program that helps Minnesotans replace turf grass lawns with plants that provide habitat and hold water and carbon in the soil.

Wetlands and peatlands

Finally, there are the watery, carbon-rich ecosystems of our wetlands and peat soils. These lands are among the most vital carbon-capture treasures Minnesota has, and they’re under threat by development.

For decades of Minnesota history, wetlands were considered by many to be useless, swampy tracts of wasteland to be drained for farmland, which significantly reduced their ability to help mitigate climate change. The 1991 Wetlands Conservation Act helped to stop further damage to these vital carbon sinks by requiring developers to either avoid wetland destruction or replace wetlands destroyed. A new wetland, however, is not of equal value to an older one even given the same acreage. Major projects that destroy vast acreages of wetlands are a net carbon bomb, even if they create new wetlands elsewhere. The PolyMet mine, for example, would threaten our water and destroy more than 900 acres of mature wetlands; its permit to do so is currently suspended due to water-related objections by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

MEP worked with our member organizations to speak in support of legislative provisions to create a peatland protection program and to invest $5 million in enhancing grasslands and restoring wetlands across the state.

The way forward

In order to stave off climate change and its ill effects on our health, Minnesota needs to get serious about ramping up efforts to restore natural vegetation. We need a new paradigm that recognizes and respects the role that plants, trees, prairies, wetlands and peatlands play within our ecosystem and for the well-being of humanity. Just because we don’t directly harvest it, doesn’t mean it’s not sustaining our lives. 

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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