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Large companies depend on small woodland owners to supply the logs that keep production lines rolling and paychecks coming.
It took the better part of a year, but sometime in late 1993, those in charge at Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) (formerly known as Tenneco Packaging) in Tomahawk realized they were running low on wood. Federal logging policies on publicly owned forests – which had been supplying the bulk of PCA's wood – had changed due to environmental concerns, and much less was being sold.
For a company that requires 400,000 cords of hardwoods and aspen a year to meet the demand for its product (the wavy wafers sandwiched inside corrugated cardboard), this was a big problem.
"It was kind of a gradual thing, but there wasn't a lot we could do about it," says Steve Guthrie, PCA woodlands manager. "We didn't have the tools in place."
PCA's experience is confirmed by state statistics. From 1967 to 1995, the average amount of timber cut from national forests in Wisconsin was down by almost 25 percent. At the same time, the volume of wood coming from private lands almost doubled. Guthrie and others heeded the warning, by the next year they'd devised a program to guarantee the firm would have ample supplies of needed wood. One result was their Forest Management Assistance Program, which offers help to private woodlot owners in exchange for giving PCA right of first refusal to any cut trees. Many other forest industry companies offer similar management help to private landowners.
PCA didn't intend to become a surrogate for the DNR's forestry program, which also is available to coach forest owners. But it was clear that the Department of Natural Resources couldn't provide help to all. "We saw that a lot of wood was being cut without professional management in our area," Guthrie says. "And there were many more landowners that needed assistance than the DNR was able to help. That's still the case."
Forestry numbers confirm this. In Wisconsin, there are 250,000 individual private landowners, but less than a fifth of all parcels logged each year receive any professional advice or assistance from a forester. Gene Francisco, chief state forester, calls this "unacceptable." Wisconsin lacks enough foresters to help those who do call: According to US Forest Service numbers, the state is about 170 foresters short of meeting a goal of having one forester for every 30,000 acres.
The new PCA program worked. By 1998, private landowners had placed 20,000 acres in their program. PCA manages 160,000 acres of its own land as well. Together, the logs coming from these private forests provide about half of the company's current supply of wood. A small additional amount comes from independent loggers, who buy it from private landowners. The remainder comes from county, state, and federal forests.
The assistance offered to private woodlot owners is free. PCA's foresters will work with owners of lots as small as 10 acres, and as big as several thousand acres. They will help landowners:
Today, the trees cut from Wisconsin's private woods are an essential part of PCA's business. "Without the wood coming off private lands, we could not keep our mill supplied," Guthrie says. And that would mean less wavy waferboard, which is very much in demand: "If people didn't use cardboard boxes, we'd be out of business."
The trend toward reliance on private lands shows no sign of reversing. Federal forestry officials are continuing to close off or reduce harvesting on some portions of national forests to protect wildlife habitat, prevent erosion, and manage large tracts for wildlife and recreation as well as timber. Harvests from private woodlands are important in making up the shortfall from public lands.
Stuart Stotts' plans for his 45 acres of hilly Vernon County land include no fancy blueprints or requests for utility extensions.
"We wanted the land just because we love that area," says Stotts, a Madison singer and storyteller. "We wanted a retreat place, a place for our kids to connect with land, to learn about being outdoors in a way that would be familiar. Plus I'm really into sustainable issues, and it's a place to learn about practicing that."
Stuart, his wife, Sara Obern, and their two young girls represent a new generation of landowners that want forested land less for its economic value than for its spiritual one. The two have planted fruit trees and ginseng, dug out dozens of invasive plants such as wild parsnip and prickly ash, and built houses for bluebirds. Stotts and Obern installed solar panels to power the lights and even a blender in the previous owner's trailer, which the family uses now but may replace someday with a small cabin.
They also have begun to think of the best way to manage the trees in their forests.
By buying a tract adjacent to the 10,000-acre Kickapoo Reserve and by foregoing ambitious development, the two are augmenting the reserve's ability to protect wildlife and plants. And with the receipt of a grant from the Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant Program that will pay about two-thirds the cost of a management plan, they hope also to help the area recover from the poor logging of past years. That includes repairing erosion off an old logging road and allowing good trees to grow bigger. Most trees are too small to cut now.
"We want a diverse forest," he says. "We want high-quality timber for harvest over the next 30 to 70 years, for ourselves and for our children."
A number of state and federal programs can help the thousands of other new owners of small wooded tracts with similar goals. Here's a list:
The Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant Program: A state cost-sharing program enacted in 1997 to make up for losses in federal support. It provides $1 million every year, with a maximum of $10,000 per landowner, for management plan preparation, tree planting, timber stand improvement, soil and water protection, fencing, wildlife practices, fisheries practices, buffer establishment, species protection, and historic and aesthetic enhancements.
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: A federal program that pays landowners to plant trees on sensitive lands. Cost-sharing is available for wildlife plantings, grass establishment, erosion controls and stream buffers.
The Stewardship Incentive Program: A federal cost-sharing program providing up to $5,000 per landowner to prepare management plans, plant trees, improve timber stands, protect soil and water, conduct prescribed burns, buffer streams, and protect wildlife and fish habitat. No money was allocated for 1999, but it may be restored in the future.
The Forestry Incentives Program: A federal program with cost-sharing capped at $10,000 each year. It includes tree planting, timber stand improvement, preparing sites for natural regeneration, and restoring wetlands.
The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program: A federal cost-sharing program capped at $10,000 per landowner, for wildlife plantings, grass establishment, fencing, prescribed burning, improvement of wildlife and fish habitat, restoring wetlands, and developing farm buffers.