ALONG MOOSE CREEK - Kurt Anderson stepped gingerly between hummocks, working his way to the edge of the stream where he hoped he would find a fish.

He cast into a fishy-looking riffle, between a bend and a pool, next to a half-submerged log that seemed the perfect spot for a foot-long brook trout to be hanging out.

If the trout was there, however, it didn't make its presence known, ignoring a juicy worm on the end of Anderson's line. In other stretches trout ignored his flies and spinners, too.

"There's too much water, I think. It's come up a foot in just a few days'' Anderson said of the fast-flowing stream swollen with spring rain. "Sometimes after a rain they can really put on the feed bag. But this is too much."

But the lack of biting fish really didn't make it any less of a morning. We spooked a deer on our way in. A grouse was drumming almost constantly somewhere nearby. Red-winged blackbirds were calling for a mate. A woodcock flushed as we walked toward the stream.

"This is just a great stretch of stream here, and we hope it's going to stay that way,'' said Anderson. "We can help it out."

If the Rajala Woods Foundation succeeds, the stream is in good hands for the foreseeable future.

Taconite rests in a railroad tie on an old trestle through forest in Lake County. Photos by Clint Austin / News Tribune
Taconite rests in a railroad tie on an old trestle through forest in Lake County. Photos by Clint Austin / News Tribune
This stretch of Moose Creek runs through a 1,200-acre plot of forest in Lake County that's now owned by the fledgling Rajala Woods Foundation. The land includes a branch of the Manitou River on the west and Nine Mile Creek on the east with Moose Creek in between, three designated North Shore trout streams. It's a mix of lowland-wetlands near the streams and rolling hills of aspen, birch, spruce and balsam. The parcel includes three miles of streams in all.

But, for Anderson's taste, and the health of the streams, there aren't nearly enough long-lived species here - trees like white pines and white spruce that help shade and cool the stream waters and which will be here for centuries, not just decades, to come.

The Rajala Woods Foundation's single-minded goal is to restore long-lived tree species in their native habitat - thus creating "healthy, resilient forests that will provide value for centuries." That value will come in the form of healthier trout streams, diverse wildlife species and, eventually, higher-value lumber for mills. (The longer-lived species all sequester more carbon for more years.)

So on this day, as we focused on brook trout, a crew of 15 or so Minnesota Power Employees, all volunteers, were out planting trees along Moose Creek. One team installed stream flow meters to measure any changes in how the stream reacts to new trees in coming years.

"We aren't going to get it back to what it was before logging. But the goal is a better balance of conifers, the longer-lived species, to the shorter lived aspen,'' said Anderson, chairman of the Rajala Woods Foundation board, while wading between fishing holes. "Eventually, we'll have a better balance of tree composition."

Dan McCourtney a Rajala Foundation board member plants white spruce.
Dan McCourtney a Rajala Foundation board member plants white spruce.
The foundation was formed to expand on a Minnesota Power conservation program. Back in 2015 the Duluth-based utility announced it was embarking on a decade-long effort to plant and care for 3 million long-lived trees - namely white pines - on the 30,000 acres Minnesota Power owns across northern Minnesota. They named it the Rajala Woods Initiative, after famed white pine promoter Jack Rajala, and they're now well over 1 million trees into the effort with 90 percent survival.

Anderson, who works as Minnesota Power's environmental and lands director in his day job, worked with others seeking to expand the effort beyond just the utility's property. They convinced Minnesota Power to donate these 1,200 acres to kick-start the new non-profit foundation. That non-profit status allows them to accept public conservation grants for forestry work. It's hoped other donations of cash and land will follow, especially in places where undeveloped corridors can be maintained between plots of state, federal and county forest lands - as this one does. Those unbroken blocks of undeveloped forest are considered critical for many species of wildlife and birds.

"We've already got some other acquisitions in the works,'' Anderson said. "The goal is to get at least 10,000 acres under the foundation's management... to aim our resources at the highest value waterways where we can have the most impact."

Rajala Woods Foundation land also is covered by a state-held conservation easement, meaning it can never be developed. And by law it's open to public recreation - fishing, hunting, berry picking, hiking, biking and camping.

"And ATVs and snowmobiles. If it's done responsibly (the foundation) is cool with that,'' Anderson added.

The foundation also plans to use well-aimed commercial logging to remove younger, less hardy trees to make room for replanting and natural regeneration of conifers.

"The original plan (when LTV declared bankruptcy) was to develop this land, to sell it off in parcels... But this way we can keep it as a managed forest, for economic benefits, but also keep it managed for ecological benefits," Anderson said.

George Host, a landscape ecologist and Director of the Forest and Land Initiative at UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute, said big trees like white pine provide myriad benefits for trout - not just shade that keeps water cool and better oxygenated. One extra benefit is slowing snowmelt and runoff.

"One of the things these big pines do is slow down the movement of water, which reduces erosion, which can be really bad for a trout stream,'' Host said. "And big trees eventually get old and die and fall into the river, and that becomes great habitat for trout."

Moreover, Host noted, white pine is one of the tree species expected to survive well in a warmer Northland climate, where spruce and balsam fir may not.

John Rajala, Jack's son and head of the family's Minnesota Timber and Millwork in Deer River, serves as the vice-chairman of the new foundation. He said he's honored to be part of the effort named after his family. The foundation's goal aligns perfectly with the Rajala's family's philosophy on the future of northern Minnesota forests. (John's daughter, Clare, a Duluth banker, also serves on the foundation board.)

"I believe very strongly in the mission to restore long-lived species to the landscape. To manage the forest to the highest environmental level,'' John Rajala said, adding that the goal is a more "ecologically authentic" forest in the Northland.

"There's value in what the forest was naturally'' before European settlement and logging, Rajala said. "We can't get completely back to that state... But it's our company's goal, our family's goal, to work to restore at least the best sites toward that end. That's the foundation's goal, too."

But ecological forest restoration is expensive, Rajala and Anderson noted, and won't necessarily be funded through traditional logging-timber sale economics. (That's how we ended up with a century of short-lived species, Rajala noted. Aspen grew back freely and quickly and was good fodder for paper mills, if not necessarily great for forest ecology on such a large scale.)

That's where the foundation - using state conservation grants and private donations - can help by planting, bud -capping, thinning and managing land to allow white pines to retake their rightful place in the woods.

"There's always been a mix in the forest, since the last glaciers 10,000 years ago.'' Rajala noted. "But we've never had this much aspen before. The goal is to get back some of the diversity we've gotten away from."

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About Jack Rajala

Jack Rajala (pronounced rye-a-la) grew up in Effie and Bigfork. He followed his father, Art, and grandfather, Ivar, in the family wood products business, which was founded in the 1930s. Jack was CEO for Rajala Cos. of Deer River, a group of the family's businesses that produce lumber for furniture, framing homes, etc; veneer used in fine cabinetry, doors and windows; moldings, and a variety of other wood products. A lifelong resident of Itasca County, he developed a deep understanding and love for native northern Minnesota forests, especially white pine. While others lamented the loss of white pines from early logging, blister rust fungus from Europe and deer browsing, Rajala chose to do something about it. He planted more than 3.5 million white pines in recent decades and he literally wrote the book - 1998's "Bringing Back the White Pine" - on how to restore the conifer that was nearly extirpated from Minnesota by excessive logging 100 years ago. Rajala insisted that careful management, replanting and care of white pines could bring the tree back and sustain the northern forest not just for the lumber industry but for wildlife habitat and its sheer beauty. He advocated for so-called bud-capping, a method to keep deer from eating the primary stems of young white pine seedlings. And he helped develop trees resistant to blister rust. Jack Rajala died in August 2016 at the age of 77.

Nature Conservancy planting, too

The Rajala Woods Foundation isn't the only group planting trees in Northeastern Minnesota. The North Shore Forest Collaborative has been working for a decade to restore big confers along the hills of the North Shore, where birch and grass moved in after white pine were logged a century ago.

And just last week the Nature Conservancy announced it would plant trees this summer on more than 5,300 acres of forest along 55 miles of key North Shore streams that flow into Lake Superior. These tributaries, including the Baptism and Manitou rivers, provide essential habitat for brook trout and other coldwater fish. Recent reports indicate that climate change will cause coldwater fish to decline and forest management will be critical to minimizing that impact. In addition to white pine, spruce and cedar, the Nature Conservancy will plant northern red oak and bur oak, species, like white pine, expected to survive in a warmer climate.