The fire raises questions about the remote landowner, management

The Greenwood Fire roaring through the Upper National Forest in northern Minnesota has torched thousands of acres owned by 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, North Carolina, whose extended family owns about 12,350 acres, or 20 square miles, at the site. Greenwood fire. “I’m scared to go up there because of the pictures I’ve seen. It’s just burned.”

The blaze, the largest of more than a dozen wildfires burning in the upstate, was started by lightning and found the perfect opportunity in the already weakened drought-stricken forest by an outbreak of spruce budworm. The native pest has decimated the region’s balsam fir trees. The ferocity of the fire has other landowners – and Hayes himself – wondering if the family has done enough to save the forest from becoming a powder keg.

“The home [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 are many standing dead balsam fir trees that pose an extreme fire hazard if not managed.

The Upper National Forest is a patchwork of federal, state, county and private land — and more than half of Hayes Forest appears to be inside the fire perimeter, according to a Star Tribune analysis of fire records. property. The fire covers more than 34 square miles near Isabella, between Babbitt and Finland.

“Imagine thousands of acres of withered Christmas trees and what would happen if you threw a match on them,” said Duluth photographer and writer Michael Furtman.

Furtman said his cabin was on Middle McDougal Lake, next 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 we couldn’t get back,” he said. “My stomach is in knots.”

Furtman said he and his wife hired laborers to chop down dead trees and “bust our asses” clearing potential tinder, hauling “dozens of loads” of brush. He estimates the couple spent $2,000 on the work.

“The small individual landowners are doing everything they can and can afford,” Furtman said. “Has the wealthy landowner done all he can and can afford?

Furtman learned of the large North Carolina trust operations in the Upper National Forest and posted concerns about forest management on Facebook.

Hayes called the questions “reasonable.” “We actively ask ourselves that,” he said.

Fuel for fires

Hayes said he’s only visited the Minnesota property about twice in the family’s 30 years of ownership. 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 are owned by 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., trustee and head of the family office, said professional foresters help run their few logging operations, including one in South Carolina.

Hayes said the trust has gone to “enormous effort” in managing fires in the South Carolina forest, such as digging firebreaks and conducting controlled burns. He acknowledged that the trust hadn’t done that in Minnesota, in part because the forest was so big.

“We let this property go natural, even forgoing timber harvesting, because we wanted it to reach absolute maturity,” he said.

Hayes said he was aware of spruce budworm issues and that logging crews had reported areas on the Minnesota property with less desirable tree species and damage. But he said fire risk reduction had not been brought up.

“There was never any question of it being a fuel pile for wildfires,” he said. “I guarantee you it will go forward.”

Hayes said he had heard of government aid programs and would be disappointed “if we missed that boat.”

A program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can pay private landowners about 70% of the cost to manage fire risk, said Byrns, the district forester.

Lake and St. Louis counties are the epicenter of the spruce budworm outbreak, Byrns said, and he is working with many landowners as part of the program to reduce the risk of fire.

The spruce budworm population explodes about every 30 years, Byrns said, and despite their name, they gorge on balsam fir, munching on the tender growth and eventually defoliating the trees. Minnesota is in about year seven of the outbreak, he said.

The result, Byrns said, is a mass of tinder.

Someone from Lake County Land & Timber contacted him a few years ago to discuss conservation easements and cost-sharing assistance for forest stand improvement, Bryns said. He said he did not recall discussing fire mitigation.

He said spruce budworm damage “is very visible” in a drone video posted with the property’s real estate listing and photos show gray-brown Christmas tree shapes.

“These are all dead balms, which have been defoliated by the SBW [spruce budworm], and the forest is riddled with it,” Byrns said in an email.

Gary Springer, a registered forester in South Carolina with Milliken Forestry Co. and the trust’s principal forestry consultant, said he was never made aware of the problem.

“I was unaware that 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. Although fire mitigation is not an explicit part of the plan, it would be part of the focus on forest health, he said. Crews periodically harvested 30- to 50-acre plots targeting older trees and those in poor health, he said, and it would have accomplished the same thing.

“I don’t know if we could have done anything different in the last 10 years that would compensate for the conditions you seem to have right now,” he said.

Joe Jarvela, of Emily, Minn., is the on-site forestry consultant. He did not respond to calls for comment.

“Hard to See”

Hayes said a ruffed grouse hunt led his father and grandfather to northern Minnesota. They bought the property around 1990 to save it.

Hayes’ father is Robert Cannon “Robin” Hayes, a former congressman and Republican Party chairman from North Carolina who pleaded guilty in 2019 to lying to the FBI in a bribery scheme involving the commissioner. state insurance. President Donald Trump pardoned him in January.

The family’s money came from the former cotton textile company Cannon Mills in North Carolina, a major producer of linens and towels.

Now the family faces a “scorched canvas” in Minnesota, Hayes said.

“What makes us sickest is the loss of habitat…and that’s going to be very difficult,” Hayes said. “It’s hard to see.”

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this story.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683 • [email protected]

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450 • [email protected]