It accelerates reforestation plan.

A July 2012 storm that toppled trees at Itasca State Park is giving officials a chance to accelerate plans to reforest part of one of Minnesota's most popular parks.

Itasca's stands of huge red and white pines, some dating back 250 years or more, are a major reason why the park exists. The park contains 25 percent of the state's old-growth pines. The blowdown severely damaged 600 state-managed acres, including 270 acres at a separate recreation area north of the park.

But park officials see it as an opportunity, resource specialist Chris Gronewold told the St. Cloud Times for a story published Wednesday ( ). They've accelerated plans to reforest 500 acres in 10 years. Next year an additional 65 acres in the park will be replanted with pines as part of the 10-year plan.

"We're looking for opportunities for reforestation. If there's a pocket that I know of that has some significant blowdown on it, if it was logged 100 years ago, it's an opportunity to do restoration," Gronewold said.

If Gronewold had his way, more of the trees downed in the July 2 storm last year, which severely damaged about 275 acres within Itasca, would still be visible along Main Park Road. Dead trees provide habitat for everything from fungus to black-backed woodpeckers.

"There are things in this ecosystem that are dependent on old-growth pines," Gronewold said. "You don't see that anymore. We don't have 30-inch pine logs that are fallen over and decaying."

But the expectations of 500,000 visitors a year force park managers to strike a balance.

Park Manager Bob Chance knows a big part of his job is customer service. People want to see the source of the Mississippi River. They want to see historical buildings. And, most of all, they want to see the majestic, tall pines when they drive along Lake Itasca, not downed trees that prompt questions about why the timber isn't being harvested.

"That pristine drive, we were going to maintain that," Chance said of post-storm cleanup decisions. "We did a pretty good job of hiding what happened."

The rest of the logs will rot on the remaining, less visible acres, he said.

Contractors in January finished logging hard-hit areas within Itasca. Post-blowdown timber sales from the park have generated about $10,000.

Logging was necessary in those areas to prevent pine park beetles, which feast on downed trees, from moving on to healthy stands.

"This is an opportunity for restoration," Gronewold said as he strode into a 35-acre, clear-cut swath just north of the Mississippi headwaters.

The trees were gone, save for a few scraggly pines and aspen. Bracken ferns and dogbane grew knee-high in woody debris from a previous controlled burn. In pre-settlement times, uncontrolled wildfires would have released jack pine seeds.

Today, the sun-baked spot is an ideal place to sow jack pine. Red and white pines will round out the mix.

About $164,000 was budgeted to restore the 600 acres in and outside the park. About 55 percent of the money will come from Legacy Amendment sales tax funds, the balance from sources including park-generated revenue. The money will cover several years' worth of work.