5 ways Minnesota is ramping up efforts to combat climate change in forests and fields

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Nora Hertel was originally published in the St. Cloud Times, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

Spruce pinecones envelop a warming room at the Minnesota State Forest Nursery’s extractory in the scent of Christmas.

The extractory heats cones collected around the state and shakes out the seeds so staff can cultivate new seedlings.

Minnesota’s nursery in the Badoura State Forest has produced more than 1 billion seedlings from the early 1930s through 2020, which amounts to 4 million to 6 million a year. And the state wants to increase that number.

There’s a shortage of seedlings across Minnesota and the U.S. due to forest fire recovery efforts and projects that aim to reduce the effects of climate change by planting trees to process greenhouse gases.

Minnesota has a number of state-led efforts to combat climate change despite partisan disagreement in the state’s split Legislature. Tree planting cannot solve the climate crisis. But it can be a piece of the puzzle, and has been supported by Democrats and Republicans.

Trees, like all plants, absorb carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

“People love trees,” said Meredith Cornett, the climate change director at The Nature Conservancy. “There aren’t too many things that are natural unifiers in our world. Wherever we can find those uniting things in our very divided world, let’s grab on to them and run with it.”

Minnesota is in the midst of several efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change in other ways. Nonprofits and businesses are working on it as well.

Here’s a look at five state projects aiming to take on climate change.

Increase carbon sequestration in forests

By January 2023, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources must establish goals and recommendations on how to draw more carbon from the air and lock it into public and private forests.

Even before that directive from state lawmakers, the DNR was hiring a forest carbon policy coordinator, said DNR Assistant Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer.

Work together on climate goals

Lotthammer co-leads an action team on climate change and Minnesota’s natural and working lands with Andrea Vaubel, deputy commissioner in the Department of Agriculture. They’re looking for ways to reduce emissions, increase carbon storage and improve soil health across Minnesota ecosystems.

“I think we’re purposely being really thoughtful about what are all of the opportunities,” Lotthammer said. “I think we all feel this sense of urgency as well, that we need to keep accelerating action, we need to really move forward expeditiously, given the challenges that we’re facing and that we’re going to be facing.”

Encourage conservation practices in ag

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program celebrates farms that use conservation practices. Gov. Tim Walz announced last December that he wants to enroll 1 million acres in the progr. Producers that go beyond the water quality requirements can get recognized for practices that support soil health or for being a climate-smart farm.

But a Walz proposal to put $500,000 into a Climate Smart Farm Project did not get support from the Legislature. It would have provided gap payments to farmers working to sequester carbon before they enrolled in a carbon market program.

State lawmakers did OK $5.35 million in the budget that passed in June for soil health practices through the Clean Water Fund and Board of Soil and Water Resources budgets.

$2.5 million for seedlings

Minnesota will spend $2.5 million in the next two years to increase production of seedlings at the Department of Natural Resources’ forest nursery and incentivize the planting of more trees.

Rows of tiny trees fill beds in 78 fields at the state nursery. Each field is an acre and a half and separated by windbreaks.

The money will fund seedbed expansions, additional irrigation and seed procurement to meet an expected rise in demand linked to climate change-motivated reforestation efforts, according to the DNR. The number of new seedlings will depend on the state’s ability to get more seeds.

Seeds are collected by landowners and others across the state and shipped to the nursery. The seedlings grow there for at least two years before they’re sold.

A new initiative from The Nature Conservancy aims to plant 1 million acres of trees in Minnesota, a feat that will require more than 43 million tree seedlings a year for the next 18 years, according to a Nature Conservancy post by Cornett. That’s seven times the current annual output in the state.

Ongoing emissions reductions

Minnesota is not on track to meet 2025 goals on reducing greenhouse gas emissions set in the state’s 2007 bipartisan Next Generation Energy Act.

Utilities are looking to meet or exceed renewable and solar electricity sourcing standards. And lawmakers passed a number of provisions in May and June to advance clean energy in the state.

Lotthammer is proud that Minnesota has been a leader on setting those goals.

“I’m an optimist by choice. And it’s hard to do this work if you’re not optimistic,” Lotthammer said. “There are things to be optimistic about even in the midst of what truly is an existential threat that we’re facing. But we have to take action. We absolutely have to keep moving.”

And a project for the future?

The Land Stewardship Project championed a proposal for a Soil Healthy Farming Program that would incentivize and push for cover crops, perennial crops, no-till or managed rotational grazing on 100% of the state’s tillable and grazeable acres by 2040.

It didn’t pass the GOP-controlled Senate, but it did have bipartisan support in its first House committee hearing this year.

“Both sides saw the importance of investing directly in farmers, knowing that this is not a debate really about climate change, but rather resilience and innovation for farmers,” said Laura Schreiber, a policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project. “All farmers want their soil to thrive.”