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Rachel and Don Jordan at their prize-winning tree farm. Robert Queen, © 1997
Rachel and Don Jordan have learned first hand about healthy forests. More importantly, they are willing to share what they know.
In 1996, the Jordans became the first Wisconsin tree farmers honored as the National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year. They were selected from a pool of 70,000 participants by the American Tree Farm System, and their 733-acre tree farm in Iowa County has become a destination for visitors from throughout the state.
"Managing a woodland is a lot like investing," Rachel said. "You have to study and make your decision and then go ahead and do it. Afterward you learn from what you did, but you can't be timid.
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. But you've first got to do something to make progress. If you make a mistake, the forest is a quick healer."
Their 1,026 acre farm, including 290 acres of corn, soybeans and hay, had been owned by Rachel's parents, Elmer and Ada Biddick, since 1947. The Jordans took ownership in 1981, forming a limited partnership with their children to manage the land and resources. They worked with professional foresters to develop a written management plan for the property.
"The first thing we did was timber stand improvement (TSI)," Rachel said. That involves removing weed trees such as ironwood and musclewood and removing poor quality, poorly formed trees so there is more space for the better trees to grow. Rachel, Don and their three sons did a lot of the work themselves with a chain saw.
"Early on we didn't know too much about it, so the forester would come over and mark certain trees to remove and we'd cut them down and use the wood for firewood," Don said. "Now, we know what to do and we can mark areas ourselves, although we still have the forester mark other areas for us." As of 1997, they have done TSI, crop tree release and cutting for regeneration on 295 acres.
"Most landowners can't look at a site and tell you what will grow there, but foresters can," Rachel said. "A professional forester can look at the ground and know what will grow given the soil, subsoil, sunlight and terrain. They see a lot of things the ordinary landowner wouldn't notice."
The Jordans worked with DNR Forester Jim Widder, and hired a consulting forester Bill Seybold to make a timber inventory of their property. State foresters are limited in the amount of time they can devote to each private landowner.
"The inventory by the forester is one of the most valuable documents any landowner has," Rachel said. "It provides a baseline and every landowner should have it. Even people who just buy land for recreation should have a cruise by a forester and set up a land account and a timber account. They may not think about harvesting woodland immediately, but years later they realize that may be something they should do as they begin to understand their woodlot."
Having a written plan that is reviewed every five years. The forester suggests a plan, reviews it with the landowner and periodically inspects the stand to ensure that actions continue to meet the landowner's management plan.
The Jordan's goals include growing quality hardwood timber and improving the stand. "There seems to be a decline in reliable quantities of quality timber," Rachel said. "In the years ahead, I feel that regardless of the tree species, the tremendous demand for quality timber will continue. "If you're growing the trees, you may as well have them straight and tall."
Their plan also emphasizes continuing research on woodland management, improving wildlife habitat, maintaining trails and enjoying wildflowers.
The Jordans leave behind snags and some poorly formed trees to provide den sites for cavity-nesting animals. Rachel refers to these as "wolf trees" – dead snags with sprawling limbs and massive trunks that could hold several den sites. They couple intentionally makes other snags by girdling tree trunks, making two parallel horizontal cuts through the bark and first inner layer around the entire trunk. These trees die back, allowing sunlight, water and nutrients to reach more desirable trees on the forest floor.
Girdled tree attracts insects sought by woodpeckers and songbirds. By not completely cutting down snag trees, young saplings that would have been crushed had the tree been felled can be saved.
After beginning TSI work the Jordans next project was to install gates on all of the entrances to the property. This eliminated youthful partiers and road-hunters.
Rachel hadn't hunted until 10 years ago. Now, both Jordans hunt deer andwild turkeys. Both have successfully hunted elk in Colorado.
"I make a lot of management decisions while on a deer stand," she said. "When I'm sitting on a stand I'm looking around, and see trees that should come out or be saved. Landowners don't normally take the time to sit in one spot in the woods and look at everything they can see. One time while bowhunting I got looking around and saw a field behind me and counted 22 walnut trees. If anyone had asked me if there were that many in that area, I'd have said no. It's a wonderful way to take a good look at what you have."
In 1983 they had a lot of over-mature timber and had trees marked for a timber sale. That was a learning experience, "like a semester in college," Rachel said. She accompanied the forester and recorded the tally sheet.
"Any landowner who can go with the forester when the trees are being marked will have a much better understanding of what they have and what the possibilities are," she said. "It also takes you off the regular trails and you see [aspects of your property] that you wouldn't see otherwise."
The Jordans selected the logger with the help of their consulting forester. "The private landowner may have no idea of the value of the timber, and the logger is in business to do the best he can for himself," Rachel said. "He is not going to take trees that don't make money for him. But, if you have foresters mark the trees for you, they will mark those trees that need to go, and you won't end up selling some of your high-quality trees before they are ready. They'll get even better."
The consulting forester can give advice on loggers, and help with the contract so the logger agrees to take steps such as seeding the logging trails to save work for the landowner.
Rachel learned that during a timber sale a certain amount of small trees will be damaged in the process. To protect some trees, especially walnuts, she ties a pink ribbon around the tree so skidder operators are alerted and can easily avoid the tree.
The Jordans also leave behind treetops from felled trees, because hauling them out crushes smaller trees and the additional brush makes good hunting blinds. After the 1983 timber sale, the Jordans converted the logging trails into a 10-mile trail system. Grass and clover were planted and when Don mows the trails he finds that turkey and grouse use them extensively.
The Jordans are keen observers of the woodlands and wildlife. After one harvest, they noticed hillsides where turkeys were scratching. The couple allowed the Department of Natural Resources to live-trap some turkeys for transplanting around the state. Several years later the Jordans observed that the area where young oaks were sprouting was the place where turkeys had scratched the most.
"The turkeys can't get all of the acorns and we think that when the birds are scratching for acorns, they cover some up,scarify the ground, and basically plant acorns," Don said. "Not only is the oak an ally of the turkey, but the turkey is an ally of the oak."
Rachel was distressed by the devastated appearance of the land and the crop of mullein and bullthistle that had sprung up. Now that she understands how regeneration occurs, she is excited whenever she sees mullein and bullthistle, knowing these species are forerunners of a young forest.
"If you mark the harvest correctly, you will regenerate your next forest," Rachel said. Those trees best suited to the site will regenerate, she said. "Sometimes I think that people shouldn't worry so much what to plant. Instead, they should look at what should be removed. Then decide if you need to plant something."
"Landowners should think about what they'd like to do, then talk to a professional forester," Rachel said. "Start with the DNR forester to learn the history of the land and then work with a good, consulting forester who has graduated from an accredited forestry program. Learn about the different sites, what the soil is and what the possibilities are. So often people plant things that will have negative impact, or spend time and money and end up frustrated.
The Jordans suggest that landowners learn all they can about forestry, obtain the University of Wisconsin-Extension publications and talk with other landowners.
"Join landowner groups such as the Tree Farm system, Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association (WWOA), and the Walnut Council," Rachel said. You'l learn a lot from talking to other members at chapter and statewide meetings.
Rachel serves on the Governor's Council on Forestry. The Jordans are also members of WWOA, the Walnut Council, the National Woodland Owners, Wisconsin/Michigan Timber Producers Association and the Lakes States Resource Alliance. On behalf of such organizations, they meet with legislators and congressmen to discuss regional and nationwide forestry issues and policies. And who could represent the group better than the nation's top tree farmers from Dodgeville?
Why carry the "Tree Farm" label?
Tree farms are privately owned forests managed to produce renewable crops of forest products, improve wildlife habitat, protect watersheds, and provide outdoor recreation.
Al Barden, executive director of the Wisconsin Forest Productivity Council which manages the American Tree Farm program in Wisconsin, said more than 4,000 tree farms have been certified in Wisconsin.
To qualify as a tree farm, the parcel must be at least 10 acres or more in size. The land must be managed to produce and harvest renewable crops of forest products while protecting water, soil and wildlife resources. Owners must agree to manage their parcel following a written plan jointly prepared by the owner and a qualified forester. The property must be protected from fire, insects and grazing, and the land must be reinspected every five years. Members can compete for the annual award of Wisconsin Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year. Each state winner is then eligible for regional judging and the winning entries are considered for recognition as the National Tree Farmer of the Year award. When the Jordans won the national award in 1996, it was the first time a Wisconsin Tree Farm had been selected.
Tree farms may become automatically certified as producing a sustainable forest product, which can open additional markets for that timber.
For information on enrolling woodlands in the program, write: Wisconsin Tree Farm Committee, P.O. Box 1375, Rhinelander, WI 54501.
Tim Eisele is a freelance outdoor writer, and woodland owner, living in Madison.