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Recently, a group of men with a common interest gathered around a table at a Baraboo café and discussed how it used to be and how it is now for DNR foresters working in Sauk County.
Participants were retired DNR (then Wisconsin Conservation Department) foresters Ray Hendrikse, Al Prey and Harry Janz. These three men all worked in Sauk County beginning in the 1950s, although Mr. Prey mainly worked in Columbia County, and later led DNR's forest pathology program.
Joining them were Rick Livingston and Paul Stearns, current DNR foresters in Sauk County, and Paul Pingrey, who worked in the '90s as the DNR Sauk County forester and is now a private forestry specialist in the DNR Division of Forestry at Madison, coordinating training and programs for foresters who work with private landowners.
I was asking the questions as public affairs manager for the agency's South Central Region.
Paul Pingrey, you are the impetus behind our get-together here. What prompted you?
Paul Pingrey: It was an experience I had here with Harry. He dropped by one day to see me at my office when I worked in Sauk County. It was a typical day with phone call after phone call and people coming in one after the other. Poor Harry was left there standing and could hardly get a word in edgewise. Finally after the office cleared out, Harry shook his head and said, "Wow, it's sure a lot different than when I used to be here."
Harry: That's right. Back when we were here, Ray would say, "Gee Harry, it's kind of slow right now. Maybe you should go out and drive up and down the road and knock on doors and see if anybody wants to plant some trees."
Once I stopped at a farm in Freedom Township and talked to the owner about putting his woods in the tax law. He was hesitant about the government getting control of his property.
Al: Harry came over to Columbia County every Wednesday and worked with me and I occasionally went over to Sauk County and worked with him on timber sales. In 1959, we planted a million trees in Columbia County.
That's one thing I'd like the older fellows to talk about. Most of the landowners back in your day were farmers, is that correct? You said that many were skeptical about the Department of Natural Resources.
Al: Yes, and when we started, we worked for the Wisconsin Conservation Department. Until we arrived, there were only two foresters in southern Wisconsin. There was no [agency] infrastructure for working with private landowners and small woodlots. Professional state forestry concentrated on county forests, state forests, large blocks and fire control – all in the north. Ray was the first county forester in the south.
Ray: I was at Tomahawk at the time  and was told that we're opening an office in Baraboo. I said, "Where's that?" And they said in Sauk County. I came to Sauk County and it got busy...we came to work at quarter to eight, we were out in the field by 9-9:30, so during the day we didn't have an answering service...Talk to my wife, she was the answering service and took a lot of phone calls.
Rick: Well, one thing has changed since then. We do have an answering machine, we have e-mail and we also have the forestry locator system and all those things compound the requests we get...That's not a complaint, that's just the way it is.
Ray: Up north the forestry program focused mainly on large land holdings and big corporate owners. They dealt with one person who controlled 100,000 acres. Down here, we didn't have any of that. Some landowners weren't about to cooperate with us. To get people to do a lot of things was very, very difficult.
Were there not some people who bought into it right away?
Ray: Oh sure, sure, and some of those people who wanted to participate in sound forestry lived in other areas, but bought land here in Sauk County.
Al: What really got forestry started here in southern Wisconsin was the Cooperative Forest Management Act...a federal cost-share, tree-planting program that began, I believe, in 1947. At the same time the state was putting on timber harvest demonstrations to show farmers you could manage the woods like a crop that would give you a return and keep growing. That was one of the early efforts to teach a farmer to take care of woods, just like you would take care of the rest of your crops that were going to grow into something valuable.
Harry: But you have to remember back in those days their timber was worth about $25 to $30 [per thousand board feet of red oak]. You weren't talking very much money. And if they were going to sacrifice maybe an acre, it would take ten acres of woods to pasture one heifer, but that was better to them than not getting any money.
The value of timber has changed so much now that you have to get a sense of the mindset. Nowadays, timber prices are pretty high, landowners know what board feet of lumber are, and most of the species are saleable. Back then farmers knew the value of a bushel of corn, they could talk about how many gallons of milk they expected the herd to produce, but we couldn't talk about board feet of trees to them. We had to explain how to convert that tree to board feet estimates to compare that value to what they might make on eggs or milk. You had to get that potential dollar value across to them, and it wasn't an easy sale because they didn't deal with trees that much.
Ray: That's right. The woods were more valuable to farmers for letting their cattle run and graze.
Harry: Back in the first years that I was working, if someone bought a farm, usually it was a farmer, and if you asked him what was in his woods, he didn't know. He never walked in them – because that woods was only there. It didn't plant itself to annual agriculture.
So they pastured the woods and used them for firewood?
Harry: Oh yeah, they made a pasture out of it, but the thing that really brought the cows out of the woods was economics. In other words, fencing got time consuming and expensive. And as the fences deteriorated, the farmers began growing green feed. They found they could green chop, give it to their cows more inexpensively with more nutrition than they could achieve by letting cows pasture in the woods. I think it was economics that took the cows out of the woods rather than what we were doing or recommending as foresters.
Ray: Farmers were not the only ones changing. There were changes in the Department of Natural Resources mindset, too. As foresters coming out of school, we were interested in growing trees and getting that tree canopy up. I didn't have much field experience and didn't appreciate that the farmers in southern Wisconsin were a whole different mix of people than I had known up north. I'd get out to their property and immediately ask, "Where are the woods?" Harry taught me that I needed to take a different approach. I needed to spend a little time showing an interest in the farmer, ask about his corn crop and his cattle. Harry taught me that if the farmer was in the barn, I ought to walk through and talk to him for a few minutes. Ask how his crops were doing, comment on some of the equipment and start a conversation, because after all we were dealing with people more than we were dealing with trees.
We needed to establish a level of trust. And we had a lot of work to do to convince the landowners that those woodlots and trees might someday be valuable to them.
Paul Pingrey: Attitudes change slowly, and so does our view of the land itself. When I was here in Sauk County in 1997, I think it was the first time that a UW-Extension agent here determined that the average value of woodland exceeded the value of cropland.
Paul Stearns: Land patterns are changing now and people are buying woodland for a high price. Some of the marginal cropland and even good cropland is being converted to trees or grasslands.
Rick: There's been a real re-education here when we deal with farmers. When you talk about doing some kind of harvest, that's no problem now. They understand it, that trees can be a crop and cutting is something you need to do, or is appropriate to do. But when you deal with some of the new clientele now, the absentee landowners or some people who don't have a lot of experience in their woods or managing woods, it's a re-education process all over again.
That brings us to today, working with nonfarmers, the new demographics in this county. What are the needs and wants of these new landowners, compared to what these fellows were talking about with farmers 50 years ago?
Rick: Well, a lot of people don't know exactly what they have out there. Most of them are interested in a place to get away to and a place to recreate. They are interested in managing to protect the woods for wildlife and recreational benefits, and they don't look at their woods as a commodity. Quite often when you can explain to new landowners the benefits that they can get through timber management, they start to understand that they can actually manage their timber and still get those other values that they are looking for.
Paul Stearns: A lot of them are looking for that tax break [DNR's Managed Forest Law] and that's what gets us in the door first. But I think the one-on-one contact with the landowner is probably still as important as it ever was. We are just dealing with different people, often city folks now rather than farmers.
Ray: I agree. These moves back to the country are not about family income, it's more personal, and it takes personal attention. For some, the interest in rural land is a chance to go back to the feelings they had as kids. A lot of families moved from rural areas into an urban life. They miss privacy and the chance to be by themselves. But there are practical reasons why the new landowners need our help, too.
Paul Stearns: When Harry was talking before, I was thinking he might be leading into talking about land values, because that has really been a driver for us in the last ten years. Land prices are so high and the tax on forest land has become so extreme that foresters don't have to knock on doors any more for business. As I said, initially people come to learn about tax breaks under the Managed Forest Law (MFL). I don't know how many MFLs you did on average when you were here in Sauk County, maybe 25 to 30, but that business has quadrupled. We are well over 115 to 120 MFL assessments this year. It's a lot of business, but I look at that as opportunity because it gets us out onto property, making contact with owners and working with them.
Rick: I don't know, I see a lot of similarities in some ways. We're still dealing with people as much as we are dealing with trees, but there has been a change in the experiences of the people we're dealing with now. Not as many people these days had the luxury of being born and raised on a rural landscape. We now work with a lot more absentee landowners, and I suppose this rural land is a luxury for them as well. Like our traditional clients, they are smart. But a lot of them also have money, so they are game to do more habitat management and long-term forestry, even though it is going to cost them more now instead of getting a more immediate return.
Other aspects of the job are the same. You still have to get out there in the woods and do the on-the-ground evaluation of whatever you are looking at. I hope that doesn't change. We are advancing more and more electronically all the time. There are lots of tools to be more exact in the field, but I still think that being out there on the ground is still the most important task. Forestry and landowner assistance is a hands-on profession.
Ray: DNR's role is a little different now. Even as recently as the mid '70s and '80s, when I was in the field with my supervisors, we looked at the volume of timber harvested and our markings as a measure of our accomplishments. In the last decade, that has really changed. Now we're looking at a whole broad range of services. Our DNR foresters have stepped away from setting up as many timber sales. We've realized that the private sector of consulting services can set up those sales and represent the landowners' interests.
Paul Stearns: Now we measure more of our success by the inspections and "walk throughs" we do. Back in the 1980s, people thought this was one of the least valuable services we offered, but now that is turned completely around and it's considered one of our most valued pieces of advice. That walk through with the landowner provides objective advice about what they might expect from their timber and their property. We recognize that this is one of our most valued services.
Other parts of our clientele are relatively new. For instance, land trusts and conservancies own land now in Sauk County, and they are interested in managing that land to preserve many natural values more than ever. We work together with them for both educational projects and for sound land management. We help them enroll property in the Managed Forest Law and offer guidance. We also have contact with those who own the parcels next to conservancies, and they are interested in knowing what's going on in those parcels. Many of those neighbors will work with foundations and a host of other partners with strong interest in land management. We are in contact with the local Land Conservation Department on a weekly, if not daily basis. And there are other forestry organizations like the Woodland Owners Association and the Tree Farmers who are quite active with us and other property managers.
Ray: Another area of work that has changed is concern and knowledge about invasive species. We never had to touch that invasives issue when we worked down here.
Rick: I was just thinking that there are two types of "invasives" we deal with, and one of them is people! Talk about forest fragmentation! The continual parcelization of land as chunks of property get broken up into smaller and smaller pieces has a real impact on how you manage that land. The number of people you have to deal with is growing, and smaller parcels don't lend themselves to the same kinds of long-term plans you can set up on a larger landscape.
Then there is the other issue of invasive plants. Honeysuckle, buckthorn, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, wild parsnip: We didn't even talk about those things when I started working in Richland County. Now those plants are all over the place. Even when I was in Green County, we only dealt with a little of that. About two years ago when I went back to a soccer game in Green County with one of my kids I couldn't believe how much honeysuckle was along the roadsides and into the woods. And in other areas out here, I can't imagine how you get down to a trout stream and fish with all that wild parsnip around you.
Paul Pingrey: It's not just in the flora [plants] it's also in the fauna and fisheries now. The whole gamut of water quality, fisheries, parks, wildlife and forestry programs is dealing with invasive species. Just as in our forests, the danger is that invasive species simplify the system of plants that would normally be on the landscape. You just don't have the diversity of plants that you would otherwise see. Just yesterday, I was in that same woods we were just talking about. It is really rich in plant life, all the spring flowers were up right now and it was really pretty in there. But when we hit the area where the garlic mustard was, all you could see into the distance was a solid green island of this invasive plant and it simply crowded out everything else. It spreads so easily and seeds so easily, and it is spread by people and wildlife.
Then, of course, there are the "invasive" species that we spread ourselves intentionally because we thought these plants were so important for a host of wildlife, like hedgerows of multiflora rose or Autumn olive. We used to just plant it all the time. And those plants don't just go away. They persist so. Some were planted as ornamentals because they have lots of berries and the birds love them.
Another thing that's changed is the privatization of forestry. You know, the number of consultants that are out there now. Fifteen to 20 years ago there were hardly any, and now in Sauk County alone there are about a dozen, not including industrial farmers. It's a good thing in a sense, because more good timber is getting managed than we could ever do. We don't mark as much timber as we used to and I do miss that.
Ray: You're right. The new landowners don't necessarily have the attitude against government control, yet they have a consultant available to them who is using governmental regulations. But, yeah, it's changed a heck of a lot. I would love some day to go back and spend a week or two with Harry marking timber in Sauk County.
Al: And I miss going swimming at Devil's Lake after work. I used to come home at 5:30 and I would go to Devil's Lake, swim for half an hour and come home and have dinner, take my kids and go back to Devil's Lake and swim from 7:30 to 8:00. They went to bed, and I would take my dog and go back and swim again until 10:00.
Ray: Hey, I thought you were going to say you'd take your wife!
Greg Matthews is public affairs manager for DNR's South Central Region.