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Plan to cut trees along Minnesota Highway 34 moves ahead; critics still fighting

Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway and other conservation groups say concessions by MnDOT to cut down fewer trees along Highway 34 aren't enough.

Man holds a sign in a pet/garden/candy store in Detroit Lakes that says Protect the Smoky Hills. No clear cutting on Hwy 34
Scott Sonstegard, owner of Becker Pet & Garden in Detroit Lakes, opposes a project by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to clear trees along Highway 34 from an area east of Detroit Lakes to Osage; in particular, he's upset about planned tree-cutting in a seven mile stretch of the highway through the Smoky Hills forest.
Submitted photo
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OSAGE, Minn. — Dorothy Suomala of Moorhead was first introduced to the picturesque views of Minnesota’s Smoky Hills State Forest more than 50 years ago by her now late husband.

A 7-mile stretch of State Highway 34 runs through the forest, and every summer, she still makes weekly trips along it to reach her seasonal camping spot in Osage.

But Suomala says a plan by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to remove trees along the road, part of the state’s Lake Country Scenic Byway, will spoil the views.

Lady's slipper flowers dot the roadside along Minnesota's Highway 34 as a pickup hauling a boat drives by
Showy Lady's Slipper flowers dot the roadside along Minnesota's Highway 34 between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids. Opponents of a MnDOT plan to cut down trees along this stretch in the name of public safety say it will ruin the beauty of the drive.
Kelly Blackledge

“If they take the scenic beauty away from it, can it still be a scenic highway?” she wondered.

The project, now estimated at $13 million, will resurface a 21-mile stretch of Highway 34 from Becker County Road 29 to old Minnesota Highway 225, just west of Osage, in the summer of 2023.

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Bids for the logging portion of the project will be let in September and a contractor could start tree removal as early as Nov. 1.

111122.N.FF.TREESweb.jpg
Troy Becker / The Forum

Joeb Oyster, project manager for MnDOT’s District 4, said they’ve sought public input, and Transportation Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger and District 4 Engineer Shiloh Wahl have met with concerned landowners, businesses and conservation groups about the project, which has been in the works for more than two years.

Trees need to be removed for driver safety, MnDOT said, and to reduce the amount of chloride used on the road during winter months.

Doing so should allow sunlight to hit the pavement, melting snow and ice and reducing chemical use, the department said.

011122.N.FF.TREES
Mature trees and winding roads are the attraction of the Lake Country Scenic Byway along Highway 34 in Minnesota.
David Samson/The Forum

Oyster said MnDOT has made multiple compromises in its plan to “thin” the trees in the 7-mile Smoky Hills section of Highway 34 and has assured that young and mature versions of all tree species will be retained in the area.

Initially, the project would remove 85% of the trees there, back 250 feet on either side of the roadway.

That specification was revised downward to 75% of the trees, back 150 feet from the roadway, and is now at 50% of the trees, still going back 150 feet, Oyster said.

For other stretches of the roadside resurfacing project, trees and vegetation will be removed 65 feet from the center of the road on both sides of Highway 34.

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“This is the direction we’re moving forward with,” he said.

But critics aren’t letting up, saying tree removal is unnecessary and there’s no scientific proof that it would make the road safer.

Longtime DFL Sen. Kent Eken, who attended the meeting with state officials and concerned groups last week, said there doesn’t seem to be hard evidence to show removing trees would have a substantial impact on public safety.

“So the feeling I have is… maybe put a pause on this to research this a little bit further,” Eken said.

Scott Sonstegard, who owns Becker Pet & Garden in Detroit Lakes, has posted signs outside his business, imploring people to get on board with protecting the Smoky Hills. He said MnDOT is “still in the Stone Age,” and needs to rethink its vegetative management plan for roadside ditches.

“They can't give us any data or reason why they feel that they have to continue to destroy our trees,” he said.

Mature trees of various colors line Highway 34 in Minnesota
Mature trees are seen along Highway 34 in the Smoky Hills Forest near Osage, Minnesota. Opponents of a MnDOT plan to cut down trees along this stretch in the name of public safety say it will ruin the beauty of the drive.
Cleone Stewart/Detroit Lakes Tourism

Sonstegard referenced the recent infrastructure law passed by Congress, which includes funding for climate change and the environment.

“Everybody's on board about planting more trees and for the life of me, I can't see why MnDOT is cutting them down,” Sonstegard said.

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Detroit Lakes Tourism Director Cleone Stewart said a free, public information meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at Jack Pines Resort’s Conference Center, 53014 State Hwy 34 in Osage.

The meeting will be hosted by Friends of the Lake Country Scenic Byway and the Prairie Woods Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a longtime national conservation organization.

Oyster said MnDOT is planning an open house in four to six weeks, not necessarily for public input but for business owners and citizens who might wonder about potential detours during the project.

A date and location for that event has not yet been set.

A previous version of this story had an outdated cost estimate for the resurfacing project on Minnesota Highway 34. The project is now estimated to cost $13 million.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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