Minnesota riparian project improves water quality

** This story is part of a series and highlights one of the 14 common themes identified in the 2020 Eastern Region State Forest Action Plan summary report. The theme for March 2023 is Clean Water. **

Minnesota riparian project images

  • white pine seedling surrounded by protective metal fencing

    A white pine seedling planted in a riparian gap along Silver Creek is protected from deer browse by metal fencing. Courtesy photo by Hannah Friesen-Holmes, The Nature Conservancy.

  • group of people brushcutting a forest opening

    Guest workers brush-cut and plant riparian gaps along the Stewart River north of Two Harbors. Courtesy photo by Hannah Friesen-Holmes, The Nature Conservancy.

  • aerial view of people planting trees in an open forest area

    A drone captures aerial view of guest workers planting a brush-cleared riparian gap along the Baptism River in 2021. Courtesy photo by Chris Dunham, The Nature Conservancy.

A collaborative partnership used a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant to restore more than 600 acres of riparian forest, improving water quality and forest resilience along Minnesota’s waterways.

Forest quality along many North Shore streams and riverbanks has been degraded in recent years, with heavy growth of hazel and alder brush and a lack of continuous forest canopy. This is compounded by a balsam fir die-off caused by spruce budworm infestations, according to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which is leading the project.

The work took place on about 90 miles of stream and riverbank bordering Lake Superior’s tributaries in Lake and Cook counties on state and county land, as well as privately owned conservation easement land. There, contractors planted more than 29,000 1- to 2-year-old tree seedlings that will grow to maintain tree canopy in critical riparian areas and reduce soil sediments entering Lake Superior’s tributaries.

More than 3,000 acres of riparian areas in forest gaps were also enhanced through the project. Trees were planted in forest canopy gaps along streambanks where the forest was degraded, specifically heavily brushy spots or areas impacted by spruce budworm-related mortality.

Planting conifers will help to stabilize stream banks and decrease erosion. It will also provide shade to streams to maintain the cool water necessary for trout habitat. Ultimately, maintaining and enhancing tree canopy to reduce water temperatures and stabilize soil sediments will improve water quality.

These newly planted trees contain a mixture of conifers and deciduous species such as red oak, bur oak and yellow birch. Together, they serve to enhance the forest’s climate resiliency. After planting, the project provides for follow-up maintenance of the trees.

TNC’s goal of restoring 30,000 acres in the Lake Superior watershed aligns well with the key strategy focusing on riparian buffers as outlined in Lake Superior North One Watershed, One Plan.

As part of the project, the North Shore Forest Collaborative hosted a landowner workshop in August 2022 focusing on the work done on private landowner conservation easement properties. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also helped coordinate with private landowners who have conservation easements.

The collaboration between TNC, the state counties, Minnesota DNR, private landowners and others furthers state plans for water quality, climate change resilience, landscape connectivity and fish and wildlife habitats.

“TNC is pleased that through this project we have been able to work with public and private partners to enhance these resources along the North Shore of Lake Superior,” said Hannah Friesen-Holmes, TNC project coordinator. “Forests and fresh water are integral components of healthy ecosystems in northern Minnesota.”

Forests naturally provide valuable services to ecosystems by filtering out water and air impurities, and they take in carbon in the form of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The USDA Forest Service is providing $200,000 in GLRI grants for the project, which is matched by $53,305 in direct funding and in-kind services from TNC and Minnesota DNR.

“This project is an outstanding example of how the Forest Service’s GLRI grant program can be used to increase forest resilience and positively impact water resources in the Great Lakes basin,” said Ryan Toot, the Forest Service Eastern Region acting regional forest stewardship landowner assistance program manager.

Project results at a glance:

  • Stream miles impacted: 91
  • Approximate acres enhanced (assuming 2.5 acres of enhancement per gap): 3,135
  • Additional riparian acres affected by large-scale planting: 76.5
  • Total gaps planted: 1,254
  • Trees planted in gaps: 12,540 (at 10 trees per gap)
  • Additional trees planted in large-scale plantings adjacent to riparian areas: 64,150

The project was awarded in 2020 and completed in 2022, though there are plans underway to continue the work there.