NORTHOME, Minn. — In the land of Paul Bunyan, there’s a parcel of forest his axe never struck.
Fifteen billion trees span over 17 million acres in Minnesota, yet just a fraction of a fraction of that expanse remains untouched in a patch of the north woods dubbed the Lost 40.
Here, pines soar over 100 feet and even the tallest individuals appear minuscule against the wiles of unrestrained nature in its most towering and virgin form.
“To our knowledge, the trees are about 250 years old plus,” said AmberBeth VanNingen, Northeast Regional Specialist for the Minnesota DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas Program. “From a study done about 10 years ago, they were cored and dated to be 240 years old, so they are at least 250 years old now.”
What many would deem a happy accident today, the beginnings of the Lost 40 can be traced to human error during a time when land was only a commodity and Minnesota’s logging industry was in full force.
Surveyors were sent to the area in fall 1882, but for reasons unknown — perhaps, impending winter weather made them hasty — they mapped it as part of Coddington Lake, which was actually a half-mile to the southeast.
Believing it to be underwater, lumber barons left the 114 acres alone, and they were free to grow as nature intended. When the site was re-surveyed in 1960, the mapping error was corrected, and the Lost 40 was incorporated into Big Fork State Forest.
And although its acreage is far larger than what its name leads visitors to believe, the Lost 40 garnered its title because land was typically sold in 40-acre parcels after being surveyed.
Today, the Lost 40 stands as an ecologically pristine time capsule filled with white and red pines and a virtually unaltered landscape.
Somewhere in the mix, the "champion red pine" of Minnesota's Native Big Tree Registry can also be found, which measures in at 115 inches in circumference and 120 feet high.
“The Lost 40 is one of the best examples that we have left in Minnesota of a pre-logging days pine forest, so what it would’ve looked like before that era in the late 1800s to early 1900s when there was a lot of logging happening in the state, which was often followed by subsequent fires,” VanNingen said.
Only 2% of these mature pine forests remain, and white pine-red pine forests are classified as imperiled in the state's conservation ranking of native plant communities.
But what makes the Lost 40 such a rarity is its designation as old-growth, which is given to natural forests that have developed at least 120 years without severe disturbances, such as fires, windstorms or logging.
“When we talk about old-growth, it’s more than just big trees. It’s that whole preserved landscape, which has structure,” VanNingen said. “So, it’s big trees, growth coming up, it’s dead trees. Dead trees are just as important to the forest in an old-growth setting as the big live ones.”
Less than a quarter of 1% of all of Minnesota's forests are designated as old-growth, making the Lost 40 a gold mine of a forest.
No, really. There’s actually a mine.
Remnants of an esker formation, which VanNingen describes as “a little spit of gravel and sand left over by the glaciers,” are found in the Lost 40.
“If you look at it in an aerial photo, you’ll see it’s surrounded on three sides by wetlands and it’s this little peninsula of upland,” VanNingen said. “A lot of those places get gravel-mined, so the fact that the trees are here and got skipped by the loggers also means this got saved from being mined for gravel.”
The Lost 40 is classified as a Scientific and Natural Area, which means it’s public land that has been selected specifically for the preservation of unique and native features of the Minnesota landscape.
This classification not only allows native plants and animals to flourish, but it grants forest ecologists like VanNingen the opportunity to study the area for better understanding of effective land and wildlife management.
A shoe scraper to prevent outside seeds from coming into the area can be found near the entrance of the Lost 40, but there has yet to be an issue with invasive species, VanNingen said.
The fate of the forest in coming years is more of a concern, however.
“One thing we’ll have to look at is what will the future of the forest look like,” VanNingen said. “It hasn’t seen fire for a long time, and it’s a fire-dependent system. So what will this forest look like in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and beyond? Obviously, none of us know the future, but thinking about what to do is something we’re talking about.”
As of December 2018, there were 168 SNAs protecting over 192,000 acres in Minnesota. This year celebrates the Scientific and Natural Areas Program’s 50th anniversary.
“We are set out in statute to protect Minnesota’s natural heritage, and that’s what we continue to do. We do it for all Minnesotans,” VanNingen said.
With the Lost 40 being one of the most popular and accessible SNA sites, VanNingen said she recognizes the old forest’s ability to fascinate and enchant all who come to visit it.
“Being able to see these really cool big trees, I think it holds a little bit of mysticism for people,” VanNingen said. “They’re thinking ‘Wow, this is what it looked like when my ancestors came here.’ Or if you’re Native, you can think about generations and generations of your family having been here, and it connects you to the past in that way.”
Interested in exploring the Lost 40? Here are some DNR tips for visiting the area:
Hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, photography and bird and wildlife watching are allowed.
There are no restrooms or drinking water, so you will need to come prepared.
Hunting is allowed, so wearing blaze orange during hunting season is advised.
Dogs are allowed, but be sure to clean up after them and assure they don’t disturb wildlife or fellow visitors.
Leave plants, animals, rocks and other natural elements (this includes shed deer antlers) in place to fulfill their life cycle and role in the environment.