Retiring Aitkin County Land Department forester Bob Kangas was honored on Jan. 10 with a reception at Block North in Aitkin.

Kangas was known far beyond the boundaries of Aitkin County for his expertise in oak management. His former supervisor Mark Jacobs penned an article titled ‘The Oak Guy from Aitkin’ about Kangas’ career in the  Winter 2019-2020 issue of Better Forests magazine.

Reprinted here in its entirety, and with permission.

THE OAK-GUY FROM AITKIN

Some of us with a “touch of gray” might remember a song released 50 years ago entitled “Okie from Muskogee.” The song advocates the rural approach to life. Well, northern Minnesota has its own “Oak-Guy from Aitkin” who, for nearly 35-years, has been promoting and enhancing the oak forests of rural Aitkin County. His name is Bob Kangas. As a forest manager with the Aitkin County Land Department, his work has inspired management in oak forests that has led to impressive results – results that, in my opinion, are unmatched in our region.

When Bob started as a forester in the mid-1980’s “diameter limit” harvesting was the norm for hardwood forests. This is a practice where the big trees are harvested leaving smaller and defective trees behind. Bob knew this practice was silviculturally inappropriate and degraded stand quality. He took it upon himself to halt the practice and to implement ‘marked tree thins’ focused on improving growth on crop trees; applying it to hundreds of acres every year. Today, some stands have been thinned two or three times and the results tell the story, with numerous stands currently exhibiting high-quality trees in excess of 20-inches in diameter.

Peter Bundy, a respected restoration forester with Masconomo Forestry testifies:   “Bob has a deep silvicultural understanding. One example of this is his early adaptation of crop tree release thinning in mature red oak stands in northern Minnesota. Most foresters did not recognize the potential of these stands to put on quality growth as they approached the century mark in a tough climate. Bob did, and the results are now measurable and speak for themselves.”

Another challenge with the forests of Aitkin County was the fact that virtually all of the 45,000 acres of hardwoods on Aitkin County-administered land was “middle aged” (age 60-80), with few acres of young oak forest. Knowing that this age imbalance is not sustainable in the long run, Bob began applying shelterwood harvests, focusing on oak stands that had been significantly degraded by diameter limit harvests in previous years, to establish oak and other hardwood regeneration. 

Initially it was difficult to attract loggers to these harvests. Bob notes, however: “Improved markets for hardwood pulpwood and small diameter sawtimber, coupled with increased hardwood lumber prices during the housing boom, greatly enhanced our ability to get the work done in our hardwood forests.” Once again, Bob’s efforts were successful and thousands of acres have been rehabilitated, the result of over two decades of harvests. These acres are now fully-stocked with oak and hardwood regeneration.

Maintaining oak trees in maple-dominated rich-mesic hardwood forests is a long-term challenge that many forest managers do not consider. Bob’s long-term view of the forest led him to be one of the first to implement variable density thins and group selection harvest in these forests on an operational basis. The series of small canopy gaps provided by these practices has successfully provided enough sunlight to regenerate oak, birch and other sun-loving species, while maintaining the mature character of the forests.

Enhancing tree species diversity in these forests can have a positive impact for future land managers in the face of uncertainty due to a changing climate.

While Bob is the quintessential “leather boots on the ground” field forester, he also has a knack for sharing his knowledge and field experiences. Whether in a conference or on a field tour Bob is at ease discussing forest management with foresters, ecologists, biologists, elected officials, landowners and students. “Bob has led an annual field tour for my University of Minnesota (U of M) silviculture students for a number of years and the stops on the field trip range from a degraded hardwood site to one that has been improved to a high-quality hardwood stand. This allows students to see first hand how good silviculture and good forest management can change a forest, says Marcella Windmuller-Campione of the U of M Department of Forest Resources.

Over the years, Bob has influenced many young foresters. “Bob is a mentor to junior employees because you know that they will be exposed to his solid work ethic and years of experience. Bob has a way of sharing information in a practical way, transferring knowledge at multiple levels. “You can’t ask for a better mentor” says Rich Courtemanche, Aitkin County Land Commissioner.

As Bob’s long career winds down, he should take pride in the fact that due to his dedication and vision, the oak forests of Aitkin County are vastly improved, in terms of tree quality and age-class diversity, from over three decades ago. Bob didn’t invent oak silviculture just as Rembrandt didn’t invent painting; but each applied their medium in a skillful manner that will have long-lasting impacts.

Forestry/Ecology Professor Anthony D’Amato, with the University of Vermont, testifies: “Bob demonstrates how the art of silviculture is truly practiced on the landscape; focused on creating forest conditions that leave better options for future foresters. This is an incredible ethic to share with the next generation of land stewards and the citizens of Aitkin County.”

I’m proud to have worked over 30 years with Bob Kangas, the Oak-Guy from Aitkin… Aitkin County, Minnesota, USA.

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