A wry goodbye

Bernu leaves the county with colleagues wanting more

 

March 22, 2024

Brady Slater

Carlton County land commissioner Greg Bernu recently visited the county's seed orchard, 40 acres of land off County Highway 61 that's been scientifically managed over the past 75 years toward seed production. Bernu led the county's acquisition of the land from Potlatch more than 12 years ago, early in his tenure. Retiring this month, Bernu leaves behind a body of work that will be hard to repeat.

Jobs? Greg Bernu has had them.

"This is the best job of my life and I've had a lot of them," said Bernu, who spent the last 16 years as the Carlton County land commissioner.

"It was a lot better than I've ever dreamed," he added. "The county board has given me great latitude to get the job done."

Bernu punctuated the thought with his trademark sense of humor.

"It's my job to make them look good and stay out of jail."

Retiring at the end of the month, Bernu leaves behind a lasting body of work with Carlton County. He's responsible for a historic land transfer back to the Fond du Lac tribe, and expanded the scope and vision of the land department, while also making friends out of colleagues every step of the way. They described him as both strong and amiable.

"I never once in all my years of knowing him ever left a conversation with him feeling upset or let down or defeated in any way," county assessor Kyle Holmes said. He described Bernu as an expert in his field, one who examines all sides when he confronts an issue.

"Even in the most difficult situations, with property tax forfeiture, he is reasonable, logical, kindhearted and fair in finding viable solutions to help all parties," said county auditor/treasurer Kevin DeVriendt.

When Bernu announced his retirement last month, he told the board that "most" of what he'd reported through the years had been factual. The comment disarmed the chambers, busy with county business that day, and it erupted in laughter.

"He doesn't take himself too seriously," Holmes said. "And he can relate to just about anybody."

At the association of township officers meeting, Bernu's presentations have been the most heard and appreciated out of all the county department heads, DeVriendt said.

"I personally have benefited from his expertise and knowledge base," DeVriendt said. "I am sad to see him retire."

Bernu often falls into side conversations with folks: county attorney Lauri Ketola one meeting, a state official from the Department of Natural Resources talking about wolves the next.

"He is genuinely an all-around great person and I am sad to see him retire," Holmes said, with Ketola weighing in that she agreed with everything Holmes offered.

Lay of the land

To understand what the county will be missing once Bernu walks away, the Pine Knot met with him March 1. A short interview in the land office was followed by an unseasonably warm weather tour of the county's seed orchard a few miles away, off Gillogly Road.

The day's greeting was followed by typical Bernu.

"It's been a policy of this office since I've been here that we do not talk behind anyone's back," Bernu said. "We barb them right to their face. It's a lot more fun to see the expression. And everybody is fair game, including me."

Outside the office, Bernu, 65, is married to Jan, another University of Minnesota forestry graduate. They met at an alumni gathering at a Twin Cities area Chi-Chi's and hit it off, according to an alumni profile of the couple published by the university's Department of Forest Resources in 2022. Jan is the owner of an independent forestry consulting firm that specializes in working with private landowners.

Back to Bernu and those jobs. He's been an assistant forest ranger outside of Tofte on the North Shore, worked several temporary jobs across the state as a tree inspector, spent time at Minnesota Power and an extended round at Potlatch in Cloquet doing forest inventory work. He worked three years at a sawmill in Two Harbors, and for a time headed westward to the Black Hills of South Dakota, and later Utah and New Mexico, collecting data for the national forest inventory while living primarily out of a camper, according to the university profile.

After Sappi bought the Cloquet paper mill early this century, Bernu became land commissioner in Pine County for three years before moving to his current and lasting destination in Carlton County.

He learned to love the land department work when he realized he could push its boundaries into spaces like community outreach and conservation. By state statute, one thing land departments have to be is self-sustaining and wholly non-reliant on the tax levy.

"We're a small business," said Bernu, who took the initiative of a businessman to expand the department.

"There's been a culture created in our office that's firmly on Greg's shoulders," said county forester Mark Wesphal. "The guys before us weren't as wide-ranging as we are."

The rough operational budget of $400,000 a year is offset by revenues between $600,000 and $700,000. Most of that is accomplished through timber sales from the county's 49,000 acres that are suitable for logging. But rentals of the county's 49 hunting cabins also help, and so do gravel sales to smaller municipalities, and the auctioning of tax-forfeited land - though that practice has entered a gray area as the result of a 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

But timber sales are the staple, and the practice has caused Bernu to see the forests in ways others don't.

"I probably won't be looking at how much volume and how much money is sitting there in that stumpage as much as I do now," he said of no longer running numbers for the department.

Forty years in forestry have resulted in a change in his thinking.

"I'm a little more holistic in my view of the woods now than when I first started," he said.

He credited Westphal for broadening his approach to the woods. Westphal is a self-proclaimed "bad fisherman," who is still happily planning a Lake Superior fishing trip with Bernu upon his retirement. Westphal is responsible for fostering Bernu's love for forest gathering.

"If I see a patch of leeks, I'm going to pick some leeks," Bernu said. "Last year was a heck of a berry year. I don't know how many gallons of juneberries I picked."

Also last year, Bernu as land commissioner sold a decrepit single-bedroom home on Third Street to the city of Cloquet for $500. It's now in the process of being rehabbed into workforce housing.

Bernu credits the business aspects of the job with keeping him busy and his mind nimble, hopping from one project or topic to the next. But they're also the aspects weighing on him the most.

"When I come home being more tired at night, it's not from being out in the bush marking pine or running line," he said. "It's dealing with legislators, state and tribal officials, all the other little politics that go with it. That takes a toll. I've still got it, but I just wear out sometimes. I get home and I don't have anything. I'm just beat."

That's when his pit bull will greet him happily, while his cat waits to perch atop his chest once he hits the couch.

The sense is that Bernu most enjoys the added spaces he's carved out for the land department. The elementary classroom visits, showing students which pinecones only open when heated by fire. The two hay-in-the-teeth days every summer it takes to mow the 40-acre seed orchard, which the land department bought from Potlatch early last decade. Bernu oversaw the transaction and couldn't imagine the 75 years of science and tree engineering there disappearing in the face of possible development.

The orchard has resulted in a catalog of a half-million seeds for tree saplings, and figures to yield wildflower seeds to help fill the landscapes of future highway projects.

Seeds come from hearty trees and those trees employ grafts taken from trees targeted in Canada and farther north in Minnesota. The pines at the orchard are either particularly good fiber-bearing stock or experimental ones, like the Eastern Hemlock planted inside fencing so animals won't eat the saplings being tested for their climate resilience.

"I've got to have something else to do and this is a lot of something else to do to keep the job interesting," Bernu said of the orchard.

He hired Westphal 16 years ago, after just months on the job. As the two colleagues roamed the wooded acreage, eliciting knowledge around every tree branch, down every row of trees, they cut a metaphorical image of torches passing.

"Greg's first mistake was hiring me," Westphal said, showcasing that crack departmental wit.

Bernu rebutted.

"I got him by six months," he said. "Any other boss would have fired you."

They laughed. And continued to talk about the bumper crop of red pine seeds in 2013, the year following the historic flooding throughout northeastern Minnesota.

"There's been millions and millions of tree seedlings started using seeds from here," Bernu said, reflecting on its seven decades of existence.

Brady Slater

Carlton County land commissioner Greg Bernu and county forester Mark Westphal have spent the past 16 years working together in the land department. Here, they look over a patch of Eastern Hemlock planted at the county's seed orchard.

Salvaging the seed orchard is hardly Bernu's only legacy. Around the same time, Bernu helped wrangle a land exchange between Fond du Lac and the county through the country's biggest halls of government. Fond du Lac would buy from Potlatch 1,500 acres containing the headwaters of the Nemadji River already mixed with county land. In exchange for that land, the county would relinquish 3,100 acres deemed of equal value of former reservation land within the county. According to a law signed by George Washington, the exchange required state, but also federal congressional approval.

"That really blew me away in many ways," Bernu said of the gravity of the process, which concluded with President Barack Obama's signature. "Our exchange of 4,600 acres was the second-largest exchange in Minnesota history."

Bernu said the accomplishment made him recall ninth-grade social studies, especially how it tied back to the first president.

"What I always try to do is make it fun."

 
 

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