Growing Gold in Cass County

By Buckmann, Carol A. | American Forests, July-August 1990 | Go to article overview

Growing Gold in Cass County


Buckmann, Carol A., American Forests


Every fall, Cass County in northern Minnesota turns gold, but in one sense the county is golden year-round. Approximately half of the county's forests are aspen, and that former "weed tree" has helped finance innovative management of the county's public land.

Cass County's land commissioner is Bill Brown, who is responsible for 254,000 acres of public land. A forester by trade, Brown has adopted progressive management practices that could serve as a model for other counties nationwide.

Under Brown's leadership, Cass County was the first of the 13 Minnesota counties with land departments to adopt the Geographic Information System (GIS), a sophisticated mapping system in use at the national and state levels since the late 1970s. Adopting GIS at the local level puts Cass County on the cutting edge of high-tech forest planning. Perhaps more important, Bill Brown has also put Cass in the forefront as a model of how a county can cut its timber while sustaining reasonable forest growth and protecting aesthetics and wildlife habitat.

Brown describes Cass County as "wild and woolly," a land of native forests, lakes (4,000 over 10 acres in size), marshes, bogs, and a widely dispersed population of rugged, hard-working people. The land and its trees provide the base for the county's major industries: forest products, recreation, and tourism.

Of the county's 1.3 million acres, 60 percent is public land. Approximately one-third of that is the Chippewa National Forest administered by the U.S. Forest Service, another one-third is county-managed land, and the rest is held by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Much of the land under Brown's jurisdiction is in large forested blocks ranging from 1,000 to 20,000 acres. It is tax-forfeited land that technically belongs to the state but is administered by the county. Minnesota is the only state in the nation to put tax-forfeited land into the hands of counties to manage for timber and wildlife.

As head of the Cass County Land Department, Brown oversees a staff consisting of three area foresters, a wildlife biologist, a field supervisor, trails foreman, and a timber-stand-improvement crew. The land commissioner is responsible to the county board of commissioners, the elected governing body.

Brown's management techniques place equal emphasis on all aspects of the forest from timber to wildlife, water, and soils. He calls his techniques "sensitive management" because they are designed and implemented with aesthetics and naturalness as the primary considerations. This kind of management helps answer public demands for nontimber resources and is what Brown describes as a total multiple-use concept.

He emphasizes, however, that without industry, he cannot accommodate his wildlife and other management goals. "I cannot create some of the scenic and wildlife opportunities without the ability to remove trees and maintain a healthy, vigorous forest," he says. "It all goes together."

The Cass County Land Department covers all of its own costs-mainly through timber sales-and returns excess revenues to local units of government in the county. Sales of aspen set records in 1989, topping $500,000. Over the past 15 years, the average annual harvest has been 30,000 cords, but in 1989 the harvest was 62,970 cords. Regrowth is still outpacing cutting.

The stability of the county's economy depends on diversity. Income produced by multiple uses of public lands is income that is spread over time and maintains economic health in a sustainable way.

Approximately half of the county's economy is based on tourism and recreation. The large parcels of county forestland lend themselves to activities like snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and all-terrain vehicles, which require sizable land bases.

The value of the county's forestland as a recreational attraction is difficult to put a price tag on. …

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