New city natural resources commission

John Ramos

Hawthorne Road today. Photo credit: John Ramos
Hawthorne Road today. Photo credit: John Ramos

The city of Duluth’s Urban Forest Commission (UFC) will soon be getting an upgrade. On Aug. 15, 2018, Director of Public Administration Jim Filby Williams announced to the commission that the city had been spending a fair amount of time thinking about reshaping their role to better reflect a growing focus on the city’s natural resources—all its natural resources, not just trees.

“We often talk about how extraordinary Duluth’s natural resources are. And sometimes that’s infused with a little bit of boosterism and…well, boosterism,” Filby Williams said, to laughter. “But putting that aside, if you really look at the resource for which we are responsible, it is extraordinary: 16 designated trout streams, tracts of intact old-growth hardwood forest, hundreds of acres of sensitive, ecologically-valuable coastal wetlands on one of the world’s largest and most important freshwater estuaries, a continentally important habitat for migrating raptors and songbirds, [and] wilderness extensive enough that every few years we see a wolf or a moose in this metropolitan area. And then, of course, Lake Superior, 18 miles of shoreline, much of which is regionally unusual dune and beach habitat that is remarkably intact. Our feeling is that … as the landowner responsible for caring for these resources, [the city’s] work needs to be better resourced. It needs to be more strategic, it needs to be more evidence-based and scientifically-informed; and it needs to be more public.”

As such, the city is proposing to greatly expand the scope of the UFC and convert it into a “Natural Resources Commission” (a formal name has not yet been chosen), whose purpose will be to study and advise the city on issues related to management of the city’s 10,000 acres of public land. Among other things, the commission will address “mounting threats [such as] climate change, invasive species, illegal motorized use, [and excessive] development” in sensitive areas. According to Filby Williams, the city is also concerned about the danger of “loving [the resource] to death,” as can happen when too many people trample into an area looking for outdoor fun. To assist the NRC in its many proposed duties, the city has hired a new full-time city natural resource coordinator, and is on the verge of hiring a full-time city forester.

History of the UFC

Duluth’s Tree Commission was created by the city council in 1995, after city crews cut down several big silver maples on the boulevards of Hawthorne Road. Neighbors complained that the city had not notified anyone about their plans; crews had simply come by and spray-painted large red X’s on the trees they wanted to cut, then cut them. Neighbors also questioned the need for taking out the trees, saying that some of the trees identified as safety hazards by the city could live for many more years with proper pruning and management. An independent assessment by a local horticulturalist backed up this diagnosis, at least for some of the trees.

The city responded to residents’ concerns by temporarily suspending the cutting of boulevard trees and forming a task force to “review the city’s current policy and practice with respect to the removal of boulevard trees and make recommendations to the city council with regard to such subject.” The Tree Commission was ultimately formed on the task force’s recommendation. For 23 years, they have advised the city on tree-related matters. In 2016, the Tree Commission was renamed the Urban Forest Commission (UFC).

Unlike, say, the Parks Commission or the Planning Commission, the UFC has never had a particularly strong voice in the city. One reason for this is that, in terms of city commissions, they are relatively new. Another reason is that they lack any real statutory authority: Their role is advisory, and often overlooked. Moreover, their charge—to look after trees in the city—has not really resonated with city engineers, let alone other entities that do projects that affect trees, such as St. Louis County, the State of Minnesota, and private developers. Often, the UFC only finds out about boulevard trees affected by projects long after the trees have been consigned to be cut down by higher authorities.

In recent years, the UFC has taken a more prominent role with respect to the city’s management of the invasive emerald ash borer beetle (EAB), which is in the process of killing the city’s ash trees (it takes EAB a few years to completely kill a tree, so the visible effects are not yet widespread). In 2016, the UFC approved the EAB Management Plan, developed by city staff, which called for cutting down smaller boulevard ash trees and saving larger ones with regular pesticide injections. Nevertheless, one of the most common themes heard at UFC meetings is the frustration that comes from looking in on things from the outside.

The road ahead

As is the case with the UFC today, scientific knowledge will be well-represented on the new commission. “All nine people shall have meaningful experience and expertise in the management of natural resources,” states the city’s draft proposal. Additionally, four of the members will be required to have expertise in specific fields, such as forestry and water resource management.

According to Filby Williams, one of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the city is what to do with all the tax-forfeited property that currently exists within city limits. Owned by the state of Minnesota and managed by the county, 3,500 acres of land within the city is currently held in tax-forfeit status. A lot of this land consists of weirdly-shaped, oddball parcels that are not developable, but plenty is prime greenspace as well. Pontliana Woods on Park Point is one prominent example.

“This body needs to help decide which of those 3,500 acres are going to move from the county into permanent city ownership and protection, and which should move into private hands for development,” said Filby Williams. “That’s a long-pending decision that’s likely to unfold pretty quickly in the next couple years.”

As the discussion proceeded, it became clear that a big concern of several commissioners was the issue of natural resources affected by private development. Citing recent examples of nice trees that had been destroyed by private projects when they might have been saved, commissioners pressed Filby Williams for assurances that the new commission would have a bigger voice in private land-use decisions in the future. But Filby Williams could not promise that. He advised the commission that they could influence the stewardship of private property to some extent “by modeling restoration, protection and management actions on public spaces, disseminating best practices, and providing advisory support on future comprehensive land-use management,” but that, in the end, their oversight would be limited to publicly-owned property.

The issue of ash trees on boulevards was addressed by the EAB Management Plan, but nothing has been done about ash trees in forests. Green and black ash typically thrive in wetter areas. Should they all die without being replaced with some other type of tree that can survive in a similar habitat, the groundwater levels will rise and the forests themselves may start to change into wetlands. 

“How are we going to find some way to reforest black ash forests so that they remain forests?” Filby Williams asked the commission. “We need to be part of that conversation and that strategy.” This is an immediate question that will need to be answered soon.
The city will now take its feedback from the UFC and use it to further refine plans for the new natural resource commission. “We’re not trying to ram this through. We want to do this thoughtfully and well,” said Filby Williams. “Ideally, we’d like to move forward [with ordinance changes and other administrative steps] by Jan. 1.”

Cruise ships in Duluth

At the regular meeting of the Duluth Economic Development Authority on Aug. 22, 2018, DEDA Director Heather Rand told commissioners that the city hoped to grow its cruise ship business by actively promoting Duluth as a destination port. However, before the city could take further steps in that direction, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials “have made it very clear” that a new Border Protection office needs to be established on the waterfront to process cruise ship passengers arriving from Canada.

In the past, Border Protection officials have set up temporary facilities in the DECC or the Great Lakes Aquarium to process passengers. Currently, discussions are underway with the DECC to perhaps establish the new office there. In addition, the Border Protection agency has asked the city to commit $85,000 toward the purchase of IT equipment for the new office. The city has agreed to this: $50,000 will come from DEDA, $25,000 from the city’s tourism tax fund, and $10,000 from the Seaway Port Authority. “We feel that’s a very appropriate ask,” Rand told DEDA commissioners. “This is a business that we think has great opportunity.”

Only two cruise ship visits are confirmed for 2019, but the statement of purpose for the DEDA resolution lays out the city’s hopes and dreams. “Initial estimations are that there will be a minimum of eight vessel visits to Duluth in 2020 ... Each vessel has the potential to bring a combined passenger and crew total of between 290 and 600 people.  According to research … average passenger spending is expected [to be] around $200 [per person] per day which, for the largest vessel, would put economic impact around $100,000 per vessel visit. Within 5 to 10 years, the Port of Duluth and its partners anticipate up to 20 cruise ship vessel visits each year, or an economic impact of nearly $2 million per year.”

Those are nice numbers, but speaking of $200, I have an anecdote about cruise ships. Some years ago, when I drove a taxi for a living, I was dispatched to a call on the waterfront by the DECC. Pulling up, I saw a large cruise ship docked—an unusual and imposing sight. A group of four Germans (or Austrians, or possibly Belgians) piled into my cab and offered me $200 to show them the area. I readily agreed. We drove around for two hours, visiting overlooks on Skyline Parkway and threading our way among grain elevators in Superior. When we were driving through Piedmont, one of my passengers commented that Mr. Krause must sell a lot of houses, since his name appeared on signs in so many yards. I explained that Garry Krause was running for the city council, and those were campaign signs. Eventually, I dropped them off back at their ship, and a short while later I saw it leaving the port, having only paused in Duluth for a few hours. All in all, it was easy duty, and I made twice my usual book that day.

If the Port of Duluth ultimately does attract 20 cruise ships a year, we would see a new one arriving practically every week during the summer. Time will tell if that prediction is accurate, or if every single person on the ships wants to spend $200 in Duluth, but they certainly have the wherewithal to do it: The cost of a ten-day Great Lakes cruise offered by one company starts at $6,200 per person.

It’s Border PROTECTION

In their paperwork and discussions about cruise ships, the city and DEDA repeatedly referred to the new “Border Patrol” office. When I contacted the agency for comment, however, the first person I spoke to informed me that the correct designation was “Customs and Border PROTECTION”—not Patrol. The mistake seemed to be one she had heard a hundred times before, and I was glad to be set straight. It reminded me of another time, when I referred to a “backwater” on the St. Louis River and a DNR official quickly corrected me, saying it was a “shallow sheltered bay.” I won’t make that mistake again, either.