Opponents of Highway 34 tree removal deliver formal complaint to Minnesota Attorney General

Willis Mattison with the Save the Trees Coalition is calling on Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and others to intervene with tree removal along a scenic byway.

Felled trees sit along Minnesota Highway 34 on Jan. 24, 2023, 14 miles east of Detroit Lakes.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Opponents of ongoing tree removal, part of a Highway 34 road resurfacing project in Becker County, have filed a formal complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General in an effort to stop the logging.

Willis Mattison, on behalf of the Save the Trees Coalition, hand-delivered the complaint to Keith Ellison’s office on Tuesday, Feb. 7, which he said alleges “malfeasance and possible fraud” on the part of Minnesota Department of Transportation District 4.

The complaint calling for “immediate intervention” on the tree removal was also sent to the offices of Gov. Tim Walz, MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger and multiple state legislators.

A request for a response to the complaint from the Attorney General’s office was not received in time for publication of this story.

Mature trees and winding roads are the attraction of Lake Country Scenic Byway along Highway 34.
David Samson/The Forum

Mattison said this latest plan of action is designed to stop the logging before the contractor hired by MnDOT reaches the Smoky Hills State Forest, between Snellman and Osage.


The tree-cutting began along a 21-mile stretch of the picturesque Lake Country Scenic Byway on Highway 34 on Monday, Jan. 23.

It’s opposed by many residents, tourists and business owners in the area who want to preserve the mature trees and high concentrations of showy lady's slipper, Minnesota's state flower.

The tree removal ordered by MnDOT reflects “a serious disconnect with the community it serves,” Mattison said.

Mattison said most people don’t realize how difficult it is to get government officials to respond to a legitimate complaint.

“I'm stubborn as all get out. I just won't give up when I see this kind of injustice,” he said.

The complaint alleges MnDOT’s District 4 in Detroit Lakes has engaged in fraudulent destruction of public property, along with pollution, impairment and destruction of the natural environment.

It claims district officials failed to comply with a National Environmental Policy Act law that requires a higher level of public scrutiny for federally funded projects involving any one of four “unusual circumstances.”

Those circumstances include significant environmental impacts and substantial controversy on environmental grounds.


MnDOT knowingly signed on to a false statement claiming those “unusual circumstances” don’t exist in this case, Mattison claims, in order to avoid more detailed scrutiny of the project.

The tree removal aspect of the total $15.7 million road-resurfacing project is necessary, MnDOT maintains, for driver safety and to reduce the amount of chloride used on the road during winter months, especially where trees shade the pavement through the Smoky Hills.

Joeb Oyster, project manager for MnDOT’s District 4, has previously said project revisions have been made based on citizen feedback and his office has done the best it can to balance roadway, safety, budget and environmental concerns.

Mattison, a professional ecologist and retired regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the information presented by MnDOT on driver safety and potential chloride savings is anecdotal and doesn’t hold up.

Lady's slipper flowers dot the roadside along Minnesota's Highway 34 as a pickup hauling a boat drives by
Showy Lady's Slipper flowers dot the roadside along Minnesota's Highway 34 between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids. Opponents of a MnDOT plan to cut down trees along this stretch in the name of public safety say it will ruin the beauty of the drive.
Kelly Blackledge

Mattison said mature trees and collections of the state flower along Highway 34 have been repeatedly and intentionally preserved by previous District 4 engineers, who recognized their unique tourism value.

He said he’s disappointed in the response from Minnesota’s congressional delegation, who simply advised the group to bring their complaints to MnDOT.

“We've done that… and have been rebuffed unfairly, almost in a bullying, authoritative and arrogant fashion,” Mattison said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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