BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn.-Driving down a sandy stretch of the Black's Winner Forest Road, Charlie Tucker pointed out a sea of big bluestem, a prairie grass not typically associated with pine forests.
Until after a wildfire.
"This is one of the larger open areas that have been created here," said Tucker, assistant manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn. "It looks like a prairie, doesn't it?"
Charred pines, small trees that now resemble blackened matchsticks, bordered the prairie grass in places, offering a hint of what once grew here.
"This was all ages of jack pine and red pine," Tucker said. "What we have out here right now is basically a dry prairie until it comes back to a forest."
It's been a year and a half since the Palsburg Fire burned about 4,500 acres of mostly pine habitat in the northwest corner of Beltrami Island State Forest. The April 15, 2015, fire started along the Palsburg Forest Road when sparks from a slash pile lit the previous November reignited underground, driven by stiff south winds.
"It was impressive," Tucker said.
Numerous state, federal and tribal agencies responded to the fire, which burned in a fanlike pattern across about 7 square miles from south to north. Crews had the brunt of the fire under control within about 48 hours, Tucker said.
"It was amazing how fast firefighters responded," he said.
Helping the cause was swampy terrain at the base of Bemis Hill, where the fire ran out.
"We didn't put it out; it ran into Bemis Hill and went down the hill, and it was soggy down there," Tucker said. "There's nothing you can do with a fire like that. It makes you feel really helpless."
Tucker drove through the burn area Oct. 6 before the meeting of a citizen panel that helped the MInnesota Department of Natural Resources develop a conservation plan for a smattering of federal lands scattered throughout the state-managed forest and WMA.
The DNR manages about 83,000 acres of Land Utilization Project lands within Beltrami forest and Red Lake WMA for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agenda for last week's LUP meeting also included a tour of the Palsburg Fire site and an update from DNR Forestry staff on salvage operations and ongoing efforts to re-establish pine forests.
"Basically, the goal was to regenerate the fire area to a mix of suitable species, and that would be mainly pine," said Adam Munstenteiger, area forestry supervisor for the DNR in Warroad, Minn. "We wanted to get things going right away by planting and seeding."
Munstenteiger said the fire burned about 1,300 acres of red pine that was 30 to 60 years old and another 2,000 acres of jackpine, much of which was too young to be marketable.
Eventually, about 30,000 cords of red pine and 10,000 cords of jack pine were salvaged for sale, Munstenteiger said, mostly to Potlatch in Bemidji and Norbord Minnesota Inc., in Solway, Minn.
"For perspective, if you put all that wood on semi trucks, the line of loaded trucks would be about 48 miles long," Munstenteiger said.
Salvage operations were in full swing within a month after the fire.
"We really needed a fast response for two reasons," Munstenteiger said. "Blue stain, which is a fungus that affects the marketability of the wood, shows up in a matter of weeks so we really needed to get on it in order to make sure we would be able to market the timber.
"And then we didn't want bark beetle populations to build up and threaten the pine trees that were adjacent to the fire area. So we had to move quick."
Munstenteiger said the DNR is grateful to the loggers who responded after the fire and to the forest products industry for their efforts to ensure the fire-damaged timber quickly was harvested and turned into products such as strand board and studs.
"I think that says a lot about their commitment to forest stewardship," he said.
Munstenteiger said the fire prompted the DNR to overhaul its policy for monitoring slash piles, though burning the slash remains a standard part of forest management.
"Prior to this, the policy was you light slash piles, you make sure they're out," he said. "After this, there's much more protocol to it."
That protocol now includes using infrared cameras in the spring to better detect heat areas that may have lingered through the winter. There's also more follow-up and documentation.
Speaking as a wildlife manager, Tucker said the fire also created an experiment, of sorts.
"We have this huge area of young forest-the fire area-1- to 2-year-old forest surrounded by a matrix of older forest," Tucker said. "So, that's kind of like the control, and the fire area is sort of like your treatment area."
Beth Siverhus, a Warroad birder, conducted surveys for the DNR each of the past two summers to gather baseline data on bird life within the burn area. Just as prairie plants such as big bluestem are becoming more common, so, too, are prairie bird species.
"There've been a few observations of vesper sparrows, which are definitely prairie species," Tucker said. "All the observations of vesper sparrows were within the fire perimeter, so that seems to be a response by that species."
Chipping sparrows and meadowlarks also have been documented.
"Western meadowlarks are a prairie species that you would not expect to see in the forest," Tucker said. "And again, we're finding them within the fire perimeter."
Siverhus said black-backed woodpeckers also were drawn to the burn area to eat bark beetles and excavate nest cavities in burned-out pines. The woodpecker species was more abundant in 2015 than this year, Siverhus said. At the same time, Siverhus said she observed a larger variety of woodpecker species within the burn area, including hairy and downy woodpeckers, northern flickers and a red-bellied woodpecker, relatively uncommon that far north.
Red crossbills, which were abundant in the burn area the first summer after the fire, were gone this summer, but indigo bunting numbers increased, Siverhus said.
"They like open brushy areas near forest edges and really seem to enjoy singing exuberantly from the tip top of a leafless tree," she said.
The birds' bright blue feathers presented a striking contrast to the charcoal gray branches on which they perched, she said.
The fire also set the stage for a booming blueberry crop, which drew berry pickers by the hundreds to the burn site this past summer.
"It was fun to see that many people out. I would come out here, and it would be like, you'd park here, and there'd be somebody there, somebody there, somebody there," Tucker said, pointing across the landscape. "And it didn't matter because the blueberries were everywhere.
"How often is it with humans and natural resources that there's actually enough to make everyone happy? There were plenty of blueberries to make everyone happy."
That should continue for another decade or so, Tucker speculates, until jack pine grow back and the forest canopy thickens, making the blueberries less vigorous.
Efforts to thicken that forest canopy through replanting and natural regeneration already are well underway, said Shane Delaney, a program forester for the DNR in Wannaska, Minn.
"It's almost a sea of prairie grass now, but eventually, five years down the road, you're going to see some jack pines start popping up in there," Delaney said.
Natural regeneration is patchier in areas with Norway pine and red pine, he said, and so the DNR is supplementing the recovery with planting and aerial seeding efforts. Wet summers the past two years have aided regeneration on the sandy soils.
"Out here, you'd think a real dry summer is going to be tough on them, just the lack of moisture and the competing grasses even," he said. "We probably couldn't have asked for a better two years for natural regeneration."
Munstenteiger, the Warroad forestry supervisor, said the DNR to date has contracted with a private company to plant 412,000 seedlings, including 380,000 red pine, on 850 acres at a cost of $122,000.
Another 710 acres has been aerial seeded to jack pine with a helicopter at a cost of $21,000. Next year, another 580 acres will be hand planted, Munstenteiger said.
"We'll also start doing survival checks on the trees planted this year, so we'll be doing a lot for the next several years continually on about 1,400 acres, out counting trees and looking for them," Munstenteiger said.
He said they'll monitor growth and plan accordingly in areas where reforestation is higher or lower than the goal of about 800 trees per acre.
"The whole area is going to be a very large, similarly aged patch of upland pine that was essentially reset by one catastrophic fire," Munstenteiger said. "It's kind of a unique feature, really, west of the Boundary Waters. To have a big, contiguous upland pine area like that burned in one fire is pretty unique on the landscape."