The 80-acre parcel that Shelley and Eric Larson purchased in 1976 appealed to them for multiple reasons: it was cheap, it was relatively close to the Twin Cities, and best of all the property was nestled in the middle of the Rum River State Forest. "We've got a 65,000-acre backyard," says Shelley.
From the beginning, the Larsons' goals have focused on forest health and habitat. "I guess our favorite activity is caretaking," Eric says. "That's how we spend our winters. Just out on snowshoes and handcutting trees." Shelley adds, "Thinning, pruning, felling." It is clear they enjoy the work. "We do!" they laugh, "It's a lot of fun." The Larsons have spent the last few decades slowly removing large, old aspen trees to make room for higher value hardwoods such as oak and butternut to grow. "Part of our desire is to reduce the time needed to regenerate a mixed-species forest" they say, noting that livestock had grazed their woods before they purchased it. "We've got a lot of glorious stuff goin' on the parcel now," says Eric. "We have wonderful regeneration of hardwoods," Shelley adds.
The Larsons have become experienced woodland managers over the years, but they learned some hard lessons early on. They did their first harvest in the 1980s while aspen was in especially high demand. "We had people knocking on our door monthly because we had really desirable aspen," Eric recalls. Their woodland stewardship plan recommended a clearcut, but weather got in the way. The harvest happened while the soil was too wet and caused long-lasting damage. Removing too many trees too quickly caused the soggy soils to pond, delayed regeneration, and stimulated a fungal disease in the new aspen that they continue to battle today. "It was a major disruption," Eric notes. Since then, research has led to development of better harvesting practices that have lower impacts. "The state of Minnesota did a lot of research on forest management guidelines to protect the soil," Shelley remembers, "and that's when they started recommending that people stay out of the woods when they're wet, and [use] balloon tire equipment."
Since the Larsons' ill-fated harvest, researchers and natural resources professionals now better understand the ecology of the Mille Lacs Lake area. Today, we use tools such as native plant communities and the Ecological Classification System (ECS) to guide how we manage natural resources.
The Larsons have been interested in native plants for decades. "I'm a plant person," Shelley says. "I go out into the forest and the plants tell me what that forest was and what it wants to be."
Seeing a need for greater availability of local native woodland plants, Shelley created Hayland Woods Nursery in the 1980s. She grows native woodland plants such as blue cohosh, trillium, wild ginger, Solomon's seal, and leeks (wild onions) which she sells mainly for woodland and lakeshore restoration projects on private lands. Shelley lists reasons to protect and grow native plants: they have adapted to the weather, soil, and landscape; they don't need fertilizing; they are low-maintenance; and they support local pollinators and wildlife that may be disappearing from the landscape.
In recent years, the Larsons have worked with Peter Bundy, a forester who shares their ecological interests. For other landowners seeking to work with a contractor and who are concerned about the potential impact of a work project, the Larsons recommend researching your land's history and ecology, and getting in touch with others who are doing the type of management you are interested in. Shelley suggests contacting a local woodland owner organization that can connect you with a low-impact logger.
"You can get individual cutters, even horse loggers. Find a management style that matches your philosophy."
"Line up your philosophy with the company that's going to do the work," says Eric. "There are some fabulous resources out there. You can get individual cutters, even horse loggers. Find a management style that matches your philosophy."