Profiles in Conservation
Land Management: A forester’s perspective
By Glenn Rosenholm
Retiring Midwest forester Tom Kroll said growing up in a rural setting, being the sibling “odd man out”, and wanting to prove his own worth propelled him into a lengthy and successful forestry career.
It also helped that he spoke German.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota that’s been in the family for 120 years. My siblings were better farmers than me,” he said.
His brothers, Tim and Hans, and sister, Kate, focused their attention and labors somewhat downward toward plants and crops, and all ended up being farmers. He instead looked up into the trees and grew interested in forestry.
Kroll described his own career path through the woods.
“My dad loved bird watching and forestry. When he needed firewood hauled from the woods, I’d volunteer to do that. I preferred to do the woods work. Our farm has nice forests. It’s a 240-acre farm, and about 60 acres of that is forested. They’ve been maple syruping on the family farm for decades,” he said.
His brother Hans still owns and manages the farm where he spent his childhood.
Kroll described a scary incident in his youth on the land that revealed some of the challenges and occasional dangers of growing up in a rural setting. “Once, when we still used horses, I went out to get a load of firewood with a single horse. We went across the frozen pond and the horse fell through.”
He jumped into the two and a half-foot deep water to unhook the horse’s harness and straps, “but then realized I was standing on either hard ground or another layer of ice. In any case, I got back on the sled and encouraged the horse towards shore. It took little encouragement. My recollection is that he lifted his hooves almost as high as his head and broke a path through the ice in a short time for the 40-50 yards it took to reach the shore. The sled had a solid bottom and skidded like a boat. There were deep drifts of snow in the cattails at the shore and we exploded through those in a puff of white.”
He let the horse gallop the half mile home to stay warm, he said. “He was fine.”
Later that day, he noted, “I was wearing heavy wool pants. I was sitting on a bale of straw on the sled. When I got to the yard, my siblings and parents were in the barn or house. I tried to get up to unhook the horse and put him in the barn, but my wool pants had frozen as hard as iron and I could not move my lower body. I was not frozen, only the pants. Wool is good. My brother came by and pulled my legs to break the ice and all was well. Though I recall that he commented something like ‘As usual.’”
His family used work horses for many years on the farm, he said. “My father hired a DNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) guy for forestry advice back in the 1950s. My dad took him out with the horse and sled. It was early into tree farming years. The national tree farm folks started in the early 1950s, and this was the late 1950s.”
Path to Becoming a Forest Ranger
He said he knew early on that he wanted to be a forest ranger, even though his path to a degree took longer than expected. “I started college in 1969 and it took me over 10 years to graduate. I got a few summer jobs with the U.S. Forest Service, and I stayed on into the fall. I’d go back to school in the spring.”
He added, “I did Libby, Montana [Kootenai National Forest], from summer and fall in 1974, and then again the same schedule in 1975.” He next worked on the Tongass National Forest in Craig, AK, from June to November in 1976. Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States at 17.8 million acres.
“By 1977 I hadn’t graduated from college yet, and I heard the University of Minnesota had an exchange program for natural resource professionals with the German Forest Service, so from 1978-1979 I spent 2 years learning and working there.”
After his selection to the exchange program, he ended up working in saw mills in different forests around Germany. Speaking the native language there was not a major obstacle.
“On the farm I grew up on in Minnesota, many people still spoke German. Our family still spoke some German, so I was able to speak the language in Germany,” he said.
Kroll expressed his admiration for the “old school” of European forestry practices.
“German forestry is the basis of American forestry — everything from our uniforms to our formulas can all be traced back to the German Forest Service,” he added.
“You can almost sense Gifford Pinchot’s passion for the land from his experiences in Europe,” he said, adding, “All modern forestry is based on the belief that you owe it to the land to manage it sustainably.” Pinchot was the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
After his stint in Europe, Kroll came back to the States, where he was later hired by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“I told them I didn’t have a degree yet, but they hired me anyway. I think in 1980 I finally got my degree in forestry,” he added.
Focus on Private Forestry
“For Minnesota DNR, I spent 20 years working on non-industrial private forestry — family forestry, we call it now. Sixty percent of America’s forests are privately owned.”
“The Forest Service has this great program called the Forest Stewardship Program. It provides private forest landowners the ability to speak with a natural resource professional right on their land. You can go online and search a lot of things, but any time you walk with a professional in the field, you feel like you had a house call from your private doctor.”
He said when he was with the DNR he used Federal cost-share grants from the Forest Service. “I worked with a lot of great colleagues from the Forest Service,” he added.
“The Forest Stewardship Program is a well-devised, ecosystem-based program that looks at the landowner’s needs for their land and provides them a landscape perspective, a holistic approach.”
The professional must always ask the landowners what their goals were, he said. “Deer hunting, money for college, improve wildlife habitat, etc. On the other hand, if the owner said he wanted to cut all the forest down for a field, they wouldn’t need foresters for that.”
He said private landowners don’t need to be pushed or forced to manage. “They just want good advice. Assume the best of the landowner. The State of Minnesota wanted to give personal service to landowners. Whether that service came from a private sector forester, or a public sector forester, we made sure they got quality advice.”
Kroll said that his department worked in coordination with private industry. “If the State gave free advice, the private sector had to give free advice or most people would wait in line for 2 years for the free service. So the State supplemented consultants with a cost share so we could all provide free advice. And if we charged our full costs, the private sector was welcome to put in a competing bid.”
“It’s not just about the trees or the land,” he added. “It’s about why people own land. For a lot of people that’s a big part of their lives. No matter how much you know as a landowner, you can always learn more. Most landowners are amazingly passionate good stewards. They may not do everything in the same sequence, but they have good intentions and appreciate the professional advice.”
Kroll said that when he was at Minnesota DNR, his career was spent working one-on-one with people on the land. “At the end of my DNR career I was in charge of all private lands in the State. I worked with Federal and State agencies. We set a goal in 1995 of 1 million acres of private forest land under forest management, and we did it in the late 1990s. It has continued on in my absence and I think there’s now about 2 million acres under forest management professional assistance.”
He added, “If 60 percent of the forest land in Minnesota is public forest land, and 40 percent is privately owned, then if you get half of that private land under management, you hit a target of 80 percent of all of the forest land in Minnesota.”
He said the program also provides obvious benefits to the forests.
“As a forester, I got so much out of meeting those private landowners, other professionals, and others who are passionate about owning private land. On private land, you have an extra benefit. People are always saying ‘Thank you, thank you!’,” he added.
A Second Career
After spending 20 years with the Minnesota DNR, Kroll started his second career, also in forestry. He gained employment at Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum in Collegeville. There, Kroll fell in love with the abbey’s trees.
The position he filled there has a dual function: it serves as forester and land manager for the 2,500-acre Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum; it also serves as director of Saint John’s Outdoor University.
He said the arboretum’s land is one big connected parcel that was acquired by the abbey, a monastery, back in the 1860s.
“These monks, they were all born in Germany and came here in the 1860s as missionaries. One of them had a real brother back in Germany who was a trained government forester. The monk would write to his brother to get advice. They were planting trees in 1896 before Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot started the Forest Service,” he said.
Kroll affectionately described the abbey’s forest land. “When you find big, gorgeous trees, these are all trees that are in their second or third harvest. It was all cut over by 1900. It was also cut over intentionally. The monks allowed and encouraged it to regenerate.
“It is hilly, not the best for farm land,” he added. “The Abbey has very high-quality mesic oak. Minnesota DNR rates it as outstanding natural habitat.”
The Abbey Arboretum has high-quality red and white oak. In 1896 it conducted the oldest forestry planting in Minnesota, Kroll noted. He said the abbey’s forest has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council since 2002.
The tree-lined setting is not just a scenic place to walk around on a quiet morning; the forest land there has multiple purposes, he added.
“Using our own crew and skidder, the Abbey annually harvests about 150 cords from a 438-cord allowable harvest. The logging provides lumber for the abbey woodshop, which makes all the furniture for the professors and students on campus. Oak regeneration is a focus. Habitat for common and uncommon species is a priority. Equally important is providing educational and recreational opportunities and a place for spiritual renewal.”
The Abbey Arboretum has non-motorized lakes, he said, as well as 18 kilometers of groomed ski trails. It is a popular local destination for hiking, and it boasts a 1,200-tap maple syrup operation.
“We also host 100 bow hunters each year,” he added.
He described his feelings for managing the land through forestry. “I’m a combination of touchy feely and utilitarian about trees and forests. I don’t want to run up to a big tree and cut it down. It’s a thoughtful thing. We use wood, but we should be respectful to the land. We must be respectful of the longevity and complexity of forest ecosystems and all the good they provide.”
Kroll said that people interested in forestry history should look up historical accounts of Pinchot and former President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and their connection.
“They were very close friends. Together they built the U.S. Forest Service on the German model of science, sustainability, and professionalism.”
They were people driven by the love of land and open spaces and the love of trees, he said.
Kroll, another lover of trees and forests, officially retired May 1, 2017.
Of his career in the woods, he said, “It has been a very enjoyable and rewarding 16 years here at Saint John’s, which followed my equally rewarding 20 years with MN DNR-Forestry. It is a great pleasure to see private landowners, students, hunters, birdwatchers, hikers, and professional colleagues all sharing my passion for forests.”