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Impacts of winter storm damage on Minnesota woodlands

With heavy snowfall across Minnesota this past winter, those of us who own and steward woodlands are seeing the impacts. Looking across the landscape this spring, we saw many bent and broken trees in our forests. As the snow melted and the weather warmed, many younger trees that were bent have gradually begun to straighten, but many were also irreversibly damaged. 

The context of disturbance in forests

Many of us are left wondering what steps we can take to help our forests recover. It is important to remember that disturbance is a natural part of forest ecosystems, even though it can be hard to see. Forests dynamically change through the cycle of succession and disturbance. When a disturbance occurs (e.g., mortality from heavy snow, fire, insects, wind, harvesting, etc.), space opens for new trees and plants to grow and establish in the forest. We see these transitions across our landscape, from young aspen stands to mature forests consisting of species such as eastern white pine and northern white cedar.

However, an overabundance of dead and dying trees also poses some risks to forests. This fallen dead wood can increase the risk of large fires, especially on dry sites. Low-intensity fires are a natural part of Minnesota forests, but we want to avoid high-intensity, crown-replacing fires that release large amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere. Downed trees and woody material from heavy winter snow can dry out and become the perfect fuel for fires. It can also take up growing space and limit the survival of regenerating seedlings.

Managing woodlands impacted by winter storm damage

The first step to managing woodlands impacted by winter storm damage is to connect with a forester or natural resource professional. They can help you decide the best options to help your woodlands recover and create a stewardship plan for future management if your woodland is greater than 20 acres.

A forester may suggest thinning and other silvicultural strategies. Thinning helps reduce the density of trees in your woodland (especially those that are dead and dying) and opens up growing space which can increase the vigor of remaining trees that have been suppressed. They may recommend even-aged or uneven-aged silvicultural strategies, such as a complete harvest or group selection harvests, respectively. Management strategies are shaped by your goals and objectives, and harvesting your woodland can produce several benefits while also reducing the impacts of winter storm damage. 

Ultimately, a healthy forest is a resilient forest, meaning that it is able to absorb the impacts of a disturbance with limited change. We can manage our forests to increase resilience against disturbance, including winter storm damage, pests and disease, and broader climate change impacts. 

Hazard trees and pruning considerations

You may be eager to start addressing the impacts of winter storm damage, such as removing or pruning trees that may be likely to cause personal or property damage. These trees are called hazard trees. It’s important when dealing with hazard or damaged high-value trees to always prioritize safety and consider consulting a professional arborist.

In addition, be aware of forest health concerns when pruning or harvesting trees. Any pruning or harvesting of oak trees should be delayed until the late fall or winter to reduce the spread of oak wilt. If pruning an oak tree is absolutely necessary, (i.e., hazard tree or a damaged high-value tree), cover the wound with shellac immediately to prevent the spread of the disease by flying beetles. 

Feeling sad about tree loss?

If damage to woodlands and tree loss is causing you stress or anxiety, you are not alone. Feelings of loss and grief are normal. Extension Educators Angela Gupta and Emily Krekelberg offer insight into managing stress and grief caused by big storms, tree loss and climate change including how to identify and manage feelings of solastalgia, ambiguous loss and anticipatory grief. 

Learn more about winter storm damage on woodlands

Join us for a free webinar on managing the impacts of storm damage on your woodlands on July 14, 2023, noon–1 p.m.

Register now

Author: Anna Stockstad, Extension forestry educator

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