NOKAY LAKE TOWNSHIP, minn. – I’ve chronicled in these pages my family’s efforts to help our land in central Minnesota, bought by my grandparents in 1964, to recover from the effects of a tornado that hit in 1973. The twister wiped out massive white and red pines and oaks and left a barren moonscape. Aspen, the opportunist of northern forests, moved in and took over.
Five years ago, we partnered with Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids to log off a few dozen acres, 40-year-old aspen being perfect for pulp. Before and after the logging, we planted white and red pines on the land and tried to keep the whitetail deer from eating them — often a losing battle.
As part of actively managing our little parcel, I decided to develop trails so that we could access more of our land. What I’ve learned is how important trails are to wildlife, too, providing access to food, water and shelter, and even a means of escape from predators.
“While the quality of habitat is most important, trails are something that people are able to do themselves and provide a lot of benefit in terms of using their property,” said Troy Holcomb, a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
I met Holcomb at a deer habitat workshop for woodland owners last April in Minneapolis, sponsored by the East Range Joint Powers Board and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
The main presentation at the workshop was by Rick Horton, a Minnesota Forest Industries wildlife biologist. Horton emphasized the value of trails in Minnesota’s forest lands.
“A natural game trail is where the animals travel when they’re going about their daily business,” Horton told me. “You can learn a lot about wildlife, like deer, by observing game trails. It’s really important for smaller land owners that those trails stay obstacle free. You can even manipulate that trail in ways that cause wildlife to come to your land.”
Trails existed on our family land. Some dated back to the tornado, and others to the more recent logging, but they’d all grown over to the point of being impassible. I thought I could clear them myself, but after flipping over a rented Bobcat, I decided to hire someone else to do it.
My neighbor Luke Magness arrived at our property with a skid steer loader and a forestry mulcher attachment — a large, spinning drum with teeth, and it can take out just about anything in its path.
After a couple of days of work, Magness had cleared about 4 miles of trails, but they were still bumpy and uneven. He told me that the next step was to go over the trails with a different attachment, called a Harley rake, and he assured me that I could do that myself. A Harley rake is a smaller spinning drum that grinds and smooths the soil, and I managed to run it for a day without flipping.
A couple of years ago, I’d met with Meadow Kouffeld when she was the biologist for the Minnesota chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. She encouraged me to cover all our trails with clover, beloved by grouse, turkeys and deer, so that was my next step.
Holcomb, the DNR forester, encouraged landowners to “start with a plan and a vision for your whole property.” Walk your land and look for existing trails, he said, plus consider how you want to use the trails — hiking, hunting, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling are some of the options. Also think about linking the food, water, and shelter areas that wildlife rely on.
Trails should avoid wetlands and steep slopes, and planting perennials like clover or native grasses will reduce erosion. Watch out for invasive species, Holcomb cautioned, which are the single greatest threat to Minnesota’s forests and can be introduced to the land on equipment.
Don’t mow trails often, Holcomb said. “It doesn’t need to be like a golf course.” I follow Kouffeld’s advice and mow the clover once in mid-August so that it flowers a month later, just in time for grouse hunting season.
Our state’s public lands also are rife with trails, many of them left by logging companies and railroads and now maintained by the DNR. For example, Minnesota has 624 miles of what are called Grant-in-Aid Trails, for use by off-highway vehicles (there are more than 21,000 miles for snowmobilers, too). Often in public right-of-ways, the trails are maintained by private groups and individuals but are open to the public.
The DNR publishes a biannual regulation booklet governing the use of the trails.
The DNR’s forestry division has specialists and programs to educate and assist landowners with improving their land, said Holcomb, including help with locating and maintaining trails.
I can attest that our trails have opened up areas of our property that we’d previously neglected. Wildlife are enjoying the trails, too, based on the photos I’m pulling off my trail cameras.
Tony Jones is a writer and theologian from Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.