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If a forest can be said to have lost its soul, this one surely has.
Ten to 15 acres of Marquette County century-old white pines, two to three feet in diameter at knee height, are gone, every one. So too are all the half-century pines, the ones that would have dropped their cones to start a new forest. Even trees smaller than those are down, blown over by high winds and weakened by hot sun. When I visited last April, five years after the last logger packed up his chain saw and left, the only signs of life were two or three short wisps of new pine and a panicked wild turkey.
Tornadoes can wreak this kind of havoc. So too can a determined logger who hasn't got the future on his mind. State foresters can be reluctant to talk about the minority of loggers who leave a bitter aftertaste in landowners' mouths, but every one knows they exist. When I asked around last spring, tales tinged with bitterness and regret burst forth, mixed with hope that the telling would prevent a repeat somewhere else.
When logging is poorly done, some trees are left, but usually the wrong ones – the sick, the small, or all one species. That practice, called high-grading, makes it hard for the forest to renew itself quickly, to benefit both wildlife and the landowner.
How frequently forests are badly cut is anybody's guess. What the DNR does know is that over four-fifths of tree harvests on land owned by private individuals – which accounts for 60 percent of the state's wooded land – are carried out without the help of any forester. Said Curt Wilson, a state forester from Brown County: "What are the chances of a proper harvest? It's a statistic I struggle with all the time, and it doesn't go away."
It's a troublesome figure, but without any research, there's no way to know what it really means. "I can't say that half the timber out there is being cut improperly," said Paul Pingrey, the DNR's statewide private forestry specialist. "There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that it occurs. That's why we offer private forest assistance, but we never actually measure how good a job loggers are doing on their own."
For retired farmers Delores and Felix Scharschmidt and others like them, the damage is less to their forests than to their purses and egos. Their 45-acre Green Lake County woodlot had been logged two years earlier, and Delores was painfully aware of how her beloved backyard woods had changed. Many stately white oaks and hickories had been reduced to dark stumps and slash.
"I cried when I came in here," Delores told me. "[The logger] was gonna come back, and do this, and do this. He never came back."
He also never finished paying them for the trees, and what he did pay may have been below the lumber's worth, according to the Scharschmidts. A copy of their contract with Pete Borchert, the logger, attests to his failure to finish paying – the logger himself in early 1998 asserted that he still owed the couple about $12,000, though they believe that to be low. But as to the wood's worth, the truth may never be known. No one besides Borchert, who never responded to my telephone calls, had tromped the forest to determine the trees' full value – not a trained forester, nor one of the Scharschmidts. Now, checking stump sizes to guess the quality of logged trees is mostly fantasy.
"How to take a reading off these stumps?" said Felix. If he could do it all over again, he mused, he would have measured every log himself, or hired a forester.
"Felix is as honest as the day is long," insisted Delores. "We thought Borchert's word was good, too. We know now how it should've been done. But I don't want it to happen to anybody else."
I had wondered what woodsmen meant by "high-grading," and now, picking my way through a sea of slash piles on Phil Hoopman's land, I knew. Another man who owns a portion of the land, Green Lake wood refinisher Jerry Norris, sounded tired when I asked how he would fix it. "I honestly don't know," he said.
In 1993, about 15 of 210 acres that he and two others bought the following year had been visited by chain saws and skidders. The cut acreage was as open to the sun as a cow pasture, and in a few places windburned tree trunks still stood, ghostly reminders of what the stand had looked like for most of this century.
The problem? The logging crew didn't leave any established pines to reseed the land, and in five years virtually nothing had improved. Had the woods been aspen or possibly even all oak, clear-cutting might have been proper, because aspen sprouts from suckers, oak can shoot up from stumps, and both would benefit from the extra heat and light.
But not so with a pine woods. "The point is, it forces Hoopman to do a lot of extra work," said Jim Kronschnabel, a DNR forester based in Montello."He'll have to go in and replant in sparse areas, and spend a lot of time and money and effort to get the woods back. If it had been managed properly, he wouldn't have to do that."
In fact, in the summer of 1997, after seeing nothing but weeds sprouting for several years, Phil finally paid a man on a bulldozer $1,000 to push a large section of slash into a big circle, freeing space to plant new trees in. Barring that effort, something eventually would have grown, but it might not have been what he wanted, he said.
Phil had bought his 80-acre share of the land in 1994, but not from the original sellers, the grown children of an elderly couple who'd let him hunt there for two years. He couldn't afford their price of $650 per acre. But the Ort Lumber Company of New London could, so they bought the land and proceeded to log the hundred acres or so that contained trees.
In May I asked the lumber company's vice president, Tom Ort, to visit the tract, five years after his crews cut it. He never did, being enmeshed in a major business deal at the time: the following month, Ort Lumber bought the Tigerton Lumber Company and its 50,000 forested acres for $60 million, bringing Ort's total state acreage to 70,000 acres. "People got different opinions," he finally said. "There's a lot of bad loggers out there that take advantage of people all the time. Ort Lumber doesn't do that. That's not to say 10 acres couldn't have been done differently."
Phil, a quiet sort who works as the director of Ripon's wastewater treatment plant, doesn't rail at Ort Lumber for what they did, though he does admit to a touch of cynicism at times. ("They started high-grading in the dead of winter, when it was 20 below. There wasn't a lot of traffic.") Mostly, he just sighs and contemplates his choices.
"It was like a park in here," he said, akin to the other woods down the road that wasn't cut so completely. In that stand, where Phil points out a majestic 100-year-old maple and a huge pair of twin oaks that he marked to save, the slash piles aren't so disturbing, scattered as they are between standing trees.
"They had a legal right to do it," he continued, speaking of the lumber company. "But it's a matter of integrity – not leaving a big mess for people thereafter. We're all humans. We all have a touch of greed in us. But it isn't probably the right thing to do."
Ask a forester if he or she has ever heard of landowners dissatisfied with the jobs done on their woods, and you'll receive a knowing nod. Ask the landowners themselves, and they'll ask you to pull up a chair, and later send you off with the names and numbers of five more. You'd think that Wisconsin would run out of people to hoodwink or forests to loot, but as long as there's money to be made, the problem won't disappear.
Logging is a $19 billion industry in Wisconsin, and those who labor through sweltering summers and icy cold winters to bring timber to sawmills to be turned into magazine stock or sleek new kitchen cabinets, certainly deserve a good wage.
There's no rule saying that timber owners must be assured of the highest price. But someone selling a house, for instance, may take weeks to evaluate the proposals forwarded by interested buyers. The same strategies should apply to logging. Time and time again, however, when a man with a skidder and $10,000 in promises appears at the front door, a family decides right then and there to cash in their trees.
Ten thousand may sound good, but what if the wood was worth even more? Theodore Tofari, Sr., had more than once lost money on timber sales before he got smart. Ten years ago, he received a $30,000 bid for 40 acres of white and red oak, and he demurred. The logger raised his bid; Tofari said no again. Weeks later the anxious woodcutter finally offered $43,000 and Tofari accepted. "I kept hanging on'til I thought it was fair," he said.
For some people, however, the money isn't even the biggest issue. It's the disappointment that comes after realizing their kitchen-table deal was worth less than the coffee they drank while writing it.
It was just that sort of rude awakening for the Thalacker family of Montello. Ten years ago they learned that their logger, who'd walked the 120 acres of woods with them after signing a contract, violated that agreement by felling healthy, hundred-year-old white oaks the family told him not to cut -- a blow both to the landscape and to the Thalacker's faith in humanity. Later, after realizing what a neighbor was paid for considerably less wood, the family surmised that they'd also lost a lot of money.
The original plan called for a DNR forester to help mark 120 acres of red oak that had been afflicted by oak wilt and needed thinning.Once the marking was accomplished, the logger selected and a contract written, Vernon Thalacker went to his job with the highway department and returned home to find his favorite stand of mature white oaks gone. Twenty acres, every one.
"He didn't believe it at first," said Vernon's son, Gary. "They basically stole trees from us." The experience left his father, who died in 1994, smarting and stumped for words.
The family received $12,000 for 140 acres of trees, Gary said, but a neighbor who'd had his 20 acres harvested was paid $24,000. "My father trusted the logger," Gary said. "He thought he [the logger] was giving him a good deal." The neighbor, meanwhile, stayed home during his forest's harvest and asked the sawmill for receipts.
The experience left Gary and his mother, Mary Jean, mistrusting anyone with a smile on his face and a skidder in the driveway. "We had to learn from our mistakes," he said, ruefully. "But we'll never have those trees again."
Katherine Esposito is a staff writer based in Madison.