With its 2.6 million acres of lakes and rivers making up 8.4% of the state, Minnesota may be known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but when it comes to our landscape, trees have water beat.

Covering 33% of the state, forestland spans 17.7 million acres, supporting a healthy logging industry that translates to a $17.2 billion annual economic impact from timber sales, 60,000-plus jobs and a national 14th-place ranking in forest products manufacturing.

“There’s a high level of interest in Minnesota’s forests,” says the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Jeremy Fauskee, noting that the state is often looked to as a leader in forestry for its land stewardship guidelines and sustainable practices in logging, an industry that has been a part of local agriculture for longer than Minnesota has been a state.

A long history of logging
In the early 1800s, lumber barons arrived in Minnesota. Having already cut down trees from Maine to Wisconsin, they were excited by the prospect of new sources of quality timber.  

As lumberjack Richard Louis Griffin stated in a record from the Minnesota Historical Society’s Forest History Center, “As I stood upon the brow of Embarrass Hill . . . one of the grandest sights I ever looked upon was in view, a veritable ocean of pine. One could see for miles and miles in nearly every direction over the tops of the tall waving forests of virgin pine and a variety of other trees.” 

Besides the abundance of pine trees, Minnesota’s easy access to rivers made it an ideal place for logging, since waterways provided free-flowing transportation for the felled lumber. Cut down by axes and two-man saws, the timber was loaded onto 20-ton horse-drawn sleighs and dumped by the riverbanks, where it would remain until spring. 

When the rivers thawed, barge-like boats transported the logs to the sawmill, the first of which in Minnesota was erected at St. Anthony Falls in 1821, built by the U.S. government to supply Fort Snelling with timber. The first commercial sawmill—Marine Mill on the St. Croix River, which provided construction material around the state—wouldn’t be established for another 18 years, in 1839. 

A couple of key advancements throughout the 19th century increased the production and improved the efficiency of the logging industry in Minnesota: First, the invention of steam-powered sawmills in the 1870s replaced the need for water power, meaning logging operations could spread to other non-waterfront towns. Then, in 1886, logging railroads offered a new way to transport timber, expanding the industry’s reach throughout the state.  

Bolstered by these improvements, logging reached its peak from the 1890s to 1910, a period known as the “golden era” for the industry in Minnesota. In 1900 alone, 2.3 billion board feet of lumber were harvested from the state’s forests, but by 1910, sawmills began to shutter as the annual cut of pine plummeted. 

Minnesota experienced decades of a forest-industry slump before a “Second Forest Revolution” in the 1980s—brought on by changes in the wood fiber industry—sparked an increase of sawmills and, subsequently, capital investments, employment and harvesting. 

Where industry meets sustainability 
The act of cutting down trees is often criticized, but forest harvesting is actually a good—sometimes necessary—practice to curb invasive species and provide essential raw material. “What people don’t realize is that doing nothing might actually make things worse,” says Brian Huberty, president of the Minnesota Forestry Association, which represents woodland owners and advocates for better forest management.  

Today, roughly 3.8 million cords of wood fiber are harvested annually by Minnesota’s forest industries—a number comparable to the peak of the white pine logging era more than a century ago. Now, however, loggers have new technology to make their job faster, more efficient and sustainable, such as aerial remote sensing to measure forest inventory and fully mechanized harvesting systems.  

“Forest product technology has improved over the years so that fewer acres have to be impacted to produce the same amount of product,” explains Fauskee from the DNR’s Division of Forestry. “Over the years, there have been changes to logging equipment to minimize the impact on soils and cause less damage to surrounding trees.” 

 Additionally, Minnesota is consistently a leader in land stewardship. In 1876, the Minnesota Forestry Association was founded, making it the first forestry association in the nation and the oldest conservation organization in the state.   

“It illustrates the value that citizens of the state have placed on forests. They want to ensure they’re being managed appropriately,” says Fauskee. 

As a result of the Sustainable Forest Resource Act of 1995—which established programs to promote the sustained use and enjoyment of he state’s forest resources—Minnesota was also a national leader when it came to developing forest management guidelines that are still in use today. Covering topics like water diversion and erosion control, wildlife, cultural resources and visual quality, and biomass harvesting, all the guidelines are intended to reduce potential negative environmental impacts from timber harvesting and other forest-management activities, says the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. 

“It really is a true partnership between the land managers, the loggers and the forest industry,” says Fauskee. “Most of the forestry industry has been here for more than 100 years and in order for them to stay here that long, they recognized very early on that they needed to manage the land sustainability. The loggers love what they do, and they want to keep doing it. The only way to do that is to do it sustainably.” 

Looking to the future
Though forests have been around for nearly 390 million years and are naturally resistant to some temperature and weather shifts, the large-scale climate change we’re currently experiencing could have devastating impacts on our trees—and, in turn, the logging industry and recreation opportunities.  

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are three key impacts of climate change on our forests: It increases natural disturbances that threaten forest health, such as insect outbreaks and wildfires; it limits the effectiveness of forest watersheds, which provide drinking water and moderate extreme weather events, like flooding; and it reduces a forest’s ability to store carbon.       

“Trees automatically suck carbon dioxide out of the air,” says Huberty, noting that this happens whether a tree remains in the forest or if it’s harvested and used for products like timber for homes. “A basic question for everybody is, ‘How much carbon is in your house? How much are you storing?’ Should we be using more wood to build houses? The answer is yes. When you harvest trees and put them into buildings, you could be storing carbon for decades.” 

The 2023 Farm Bill, which, at presstime, has yet to be passed by Congress, addresses the future of forestry as it relates to climate change, including benefits to landowners to maintain healthy forests, and more equitable administration of forest conservation programs. 

This Farm Bill also looks to increase funding for agroforestry initiatives. Defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems, agroforestry offers significant carbon sequestration while enhancing and protecting crop and livestock production. 

Forests—and the products made from them—may be Minnesota’s most important carbon sink, says Fauskee. “We’re discussing all the time how Minnesota’s forests fit into those climate solutions so that they are still here to enjoy in the future.”

Through the Years

Early 1800s
Lumber barons move to Minnesota in search of new sources of quality timber. 

The U.S. government builds Minnesota’s first sawmill at St. Anthony Falls to supply timber to Fort Snelling. 

Minnesota’s first commercial sawmill, Marine Mill, is established along the St. Croix River. A year later, a second commercial sawmill is erected in Stillwater. 

Steam-powered sawmilling replaces the need for water power, prompting logging operations to spread to other Minnesota town and production to increase.

Logging railroads arrive in Minnesota, allowing sawmills to transport logs without rivers. Railroads also make it easier to supply loggers with newspapers, fresh produce and other provisions.

1890s to 1910
The “golden era” of logging in Minnesota. In 1900 2.3 billion board feet of lumber is cut from the state’s forests. But, this period is also marked by devastating forest fires fueled by logging operations. 

The annual cut of Minnesota pine begins to decline and sawmills close their doors as lumber companies look to the Pacific Northwest and the South for timber.

Lumber companies in Minnesota shift production from saw logs to pulp, paper, matchsticks and manufactured building materials.

Thanks to changes in the wood fiber industry, Minnesota experiences a “Second Forest Revolution.” Sawmills, capital investments, employment and harvest all increase. 

With $8 billion in wages and 4 million cords harvested, the state’s forest industries become the third-largest manufacturing industry. 

The Sustainable Forest Resources Act is passed, aiming to reduce negative environmental impacts resulting from timber harvesting and forest-management activities. 

The forest industry generates $18.7 billion in gross sales from all forest products, and is the fifth-largest manufacturing sector in Minnesota by employment.