The Greenwood fire roaring through Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota has torched thousands of acres belonging to a North Carolina family trying to sell it for millions.
"Needless to say, we'll have to make some changes to that," said Robert C. Hayes Jr., of Charlotte, N.C., whose extended family owns about 12,350 acres, or 20 square miles, at the Greenwood fire site. "I'm afraid to go up there because the pictures I've seen. It's just scorched."
The blaze, the largest of more than a dozen wildfires burning in the state's north, was started by lightning and found the perfect opportunity in the drought-stricken forest already weakened by an outbreak of spruce budworm. The native pest has decimated the area's balsam fir trees. The fire's ferocity has other property owners — and Hayes himself — questioning whether the family did enough to prevent the woodland from becoming a tinderbox.
"The outbreak [of spruce budworm] is at its peak," said Tim Byrns, district forester for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District in Two Harbors. "There's a lot of dead standing balsam fir that is an extreme fire hazard if left unmanaged."
Superior National Forest is a patchwork of federal, state, county and private land — and more than half the Hayes' forest appears to be inside the fire perimeter, a Star Tribune analysis of property records shows. The fire covers more than 34 square miles near Isabella, between Babbitt and Finland.
"Imagine thousands of acres of dried-out Christmas trees and what would happen if you threw a match on them," said Duluth photographer and writer Michael Furtman.
Furtman said his cabin is on Middle McDougal Lake, adjacent to the Hayes property. The flames spared the cabin, he said, but the fate of his other structures was uncertain.
"We were evacuated a week ago … and have not been able to get back in," he said. "My stomach is in knots."
Furtman said he and his wife hired workers to cut down dead trees and "busted our butts" removing potential tinder, hauling out "dozens of loads" of brush. He estimates the couple spent $2,000 on the work.
"The individual small landowners are doing everything they can, and can afford," Furtman said. "Has the wealthy landowner done everything he can and can afford?"
Furtman learned about the large North Carolina trust holdings in Superior National Forest and posted concerns about the forest management on Facebook.
Hayes called the questions "reasonable." "We are actively asking that of ourselves," he said.
Fuel for fires
Hayes said he has visited the Minnesota property only about twice in the 30 years the family has owned it. The family wanted the forest to be "a canvas for the moose and the wolf and the environment," he said. It's on the market for $8.5 million.
Technically, the 12,350 acres is held in Lake County Land & Timber LLC, which is 100% owned by the Charles A. Cannon Trust for the benefit of Robert Cannon Hayes. Robert C. Hayes Jr., a trustee and head of the family office, said professional foresters help manage their few forest holdings, including one in South Carolina.
Hayes said the trust put "enormous amount of effort" into fire management at the South Carolina forest, such as digging fire breaks and conducting controlled burns. He acknowledged the trust did not do that in Minnesota, partly because the forest was so big.
"We have let that property go natural, even forgoing harvest of the timber, because we wanted it to reach absolute maturity," he said.
Hayes said he was aware of problems with the spruce budworm, and timber crews had pointed out areas on the Minnesota property with less desirable tree species and damage. But he said reducing fire hazard was not brought up.
"It was never discussed that it was fuel building up for forest fires," he said. "I guarantee you it will be moving forward."
Hayes said he's heard of government programs to help and will be disappointed "if we missed that boat."
One program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can pay about 70% of the cost to private landowners to manage fire risks, said Byrns, the district forester.
Lake and St. Louis counties are the epicenter of the spruce budworm outbreak, Byrns said, and he works with many landowners in the program to reduce fire risks.
The spruce budworm population explodes every 30 years or so, Byrns said, and, despite their name, they gorge on balsam fir, munching on tender growth and eventually defoliating the trees. Minnesota is in about the seventh year of the outbreak, he said.
The result, Byrns said, is a mass of tinder.
Someone with Lake County Land & Timber contacted him a few years ago to discuss conservation easements and cost-share help for improving timber stands, Bryns said. He said he could not recall discussing fire mitigation.
He said spruce budworm damage "is very noticeable" in a drone video posted with the property's real estate listing and photos show gray-brown Christmas tree shapes.
"Those are all dead balsams, which have been defoliated by SBW [spruce budworm], and that the forest is riddled with them," Byrns said in an e-mail.
Gary Springer, a registered forester in South Carolina with Milliken Forestry Co. and the trust's main forestry consultant, said he was never notified of the problem.
"I was not aware there was a condition in Lake County that was causing significant mortality," he said.
The Hayes family wanted the Minnesota forest managed for conservation and moose habitat, Springer said. While fire mitigation was not an explicit element of the plan, it would be part of the emphasis on forest health, he said. Crews have periodically harvested 30- to 50-acre plots targeting older trees and those in poor health, he said, and that would have accomplished the same thing.
"I don't know that we could have done anything different over the last 10 years that would offset the conditions you seem to be having right now," he said.
Joe Jarvela, of Emily, Minn., is the on-site consulting forester. He did not return calls for comment.
'Tough to see'
Hayes said a ruffed grouse hunt led his father and grandfather to northern Minnesota. They bought the property around 1990 to safeguard it.
Hayes' father is Robert Cannon "Robin" Hayes, a former congressman and chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party who pleaded guilty in 2019 to lying to the FBI in relation to a bribery scheme involving the state insurance commissioner. President Donald Trump pardoned him in January.
The family money came from the old Cannon Mills cotton textiles company in North Carolina, a major producer of sheets and towels.
Now the family must deal with a "burnt canvas" in Minnesota, Hayes said.
"What makes us the most sick is the loss of the habitat ... and this is going to be very difficult," Hayes said. "It's tough to see."
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this story.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683 • email@example.com
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450 • firstname.lastname@example.org