Photo of people in the Cornish and Libby Model Forest

Cornish and Libby Model Forests

Written by Mark Jacobs

History: Aitkin County began managing tax-forfeited land during the depression era of the 1930s. From 1930 through 1945, large numbers of local landowners were unable to meet their tax responsibilities and their lands reverted to county ownership. ACLD (Aitkin County Land Department) was formally created to manage these lands in the period between 1942 and 1949. Through the 1950s it was the county’s policy to resell tax-forfeited land in order to re-enroll land on the tax books. Despite this policy, by 1960, tax-forfeited land in Aitkin County comprised more than 340,000 acres. Of this, 41% had been forfeited a second time after having been logged off.

The 1960s was a period of transition for the county in terms of land management. Through the early 1960s, approximately one-third of the tax-forfeited lands were resold for agriculture. At the same time, county memorial forests were established; more than 10,000 acres of forfeited lands were set aside as parklands; a county parks commission was instituted; and the Long Lake Conservation Center was established. Since that time additional memorial forestland and county parklands have been designated. The Aitkin County Land Department manages approximately 20% of Aitkin County’s forested lands. These lands are fairly well blocked into large tracts in the northwest, northeast, southeast, and south-central parts of the county.

The Model Forests: The Cornish and Libby Model Forests represent only 3 percent of Aitkin Counties 220,000 forest acres. These tracts exemplify the management of Aitkin County forestland. The county mission is:

“To fulfill the County’s obligation as trustee for the local governmental jurisdictions of Aitkin County by being a responsible steward who sustains the forest for future generations, generates income for the County and local governmental jurisdictions, and properly utilizes the land base and renewable forest resources to sustain the region’s economic and social well being.”

In addition to the county mission, as foresters we are concerned with maintaining and enhancing the ecological integrity of the ecosystems. To this end we were the first public land entity to receive third party certification of our management through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1997. In addition to FSC certification we undertook a 100-year strategic forest management plan that defines initiatives for management to:

  • Enhance the quality, vigor and value of northern and lowland hardwoods
  • Retain a vigorous, productive, and balanced aspen resources
  • Increase upland conifer forests
  • Increase the amount of oak forest
  • Retain the birch cover type
  • Manage for the needs of wildlife by providing for a range of habitats
  • Focus recreational management by providing dispersed recreation and trails
  • Maintaining and enhancing the quality of water yielded from county land

Biodiversity: The Cornish and Libby Model Forests both have unique biodiversity features including rare ferns, salamanders, and birds. They also generally have high value as wildlife habitat. The Model Forests are two sites that were approved by FSC® as high conservation value areas (HCVF) under FSC® criteria (HCV1). HCVF are forests of outstanding and critical importance due to their environmental, socio-economic, cultural, biodiversity and/or landscape value.

These forests have rare, threatened, or special concern species from plants to salamanders.  Other wildlife habitat values include elements such as large blocks of forests in high development areas; valuable travel corridors for wildlife along a major river system, the Mississippi River; and rich floodplain and mesic hardwood ecosystems.

The trees: Forests of Aitkin County are located within the Northwoods sub-region, at the northern edge of temperate forests and the southern edge of the temperate-boreal forest transition zone. Upland forests common to this sub-region are characterized by shade-tolerant species (sugar maple, red maple, basswood) on mesic to dry-mesic sites; and by pines (jack, red, white), oaks (northern red, northern pin, white) and aspen (trembling and bigtooth) on drier, nutrient poor sites. The presence of conifer species in this predominantly deciduous forest is also a defining characteristic in this sub-region. Lowland forests of this sub-region are generally extensive and dominated by conifers (balsam fir, northern white cedar, black spruce, and tamarack) and to a lesser extent deciduous species (black ash, red maple, balsam poplar).

Management: Aitkin County uses a combined coarse- and fine-filter approach to manage conservation of forest ecosystems across Aitkin County, from the landscape to the stand.  All of the Model Forest/HCVF forests are managed under the County-wide 100 Year Strategic Forest Management Plan which uses landscape habitat management zones and forest ecological system (FES) information as part of a broad  (coarse-filter) plan to manage habitat for wildlife.  The Aitkin County FES classification integrates attributes of forest ecosystems including plant species composition, ecosystem structure, and ecosystem processes as defined in the Minnesota's Native Plant Community Classification (Version 2.0), MN Department of Natural Resources which is part of the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units (ECOMAP 1993).

Aitkin County uses a variety of silviculture practices described as low, medium and high intensity harvests that relate to natural disturbance regimes for native plant communities.  Foresters use intensity of harvest to maintain a forest cover type, shift a stand towards a secondary species, or restore a site to a native plant community.  From 2000-2008, commercial hardwood thins accounted for 37% of our annual harvest during this period. Thinnings remove 25-35% of the trees to promote growth on the highest quality trees. Typically thinnings are implemented every 10-15 years until the trees are mature; each entry should yield higher quality products. This practice is intended to produce high value products in the future since the majority of these stands have many years of growth ahead of them.

Aitkin County is proud to be part of the Forest Stewards Guild’s Model Forest program.

Forest Statistics

  • Acreage: 5,595 acres
  • Forest Types: northern hardwoods
  • Managers: Dan Gordon, Aitkin County Forester  Operations  
  • Primary Uses: watershed protection, recreation, timber, wildlife
  • Certifications:
    • Forest Stewardship Council


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