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A collection of articles examining how private woodlands improve the quality of life in Wisconsin
Lyle Stockwell's voice warms when he speaks of his children, his wife Shirley, and the thick maple forest behind his log house. Says the Pierce County owner of the S&S Sugarbush, when he's out among the trees that have been tapped by the Stockwell and Snow families for over a hundred years: "I love walking in these woods in wintertime."
What began in the late 1800s with Shirley's grandfather, Merchant Snow, and passed to her father, Floyd, then to Lyle, then to their son Barry and, eventually, perhaps, to their 10 grandchildren, has become a tradition valued for the lessons and the living it provides. The grandkids and friends who help at tapping time come away with a bellyful of apple cake and a solid work ethic. The thousands of dollars that trickle in from syrup sales, divided by hundreds of hours invested, contribute to a decent nest egg for the two older folk.
After toiling in the same woods for over 40 years, Lyle has developed a certain intimacy with his trees, drilling into some of the same trees that dripped sap for Merchant in 1890. "Trees are just like human beings," he says. "There are some sweet ones out there, and some are not so sweet," he continues, with a sideways smile at his wife. "If they could talk, they'd really tell us a lot."
That intimacy is shared by all the forest landowners profiled in this series. When you look at a state map, the yellow polygons of our metropolitan centers, the green blocks of public forests, and the ribbons of red Interstates and blue highways are paltry in comparison to the sea of white spaces that remain in private hands. Rails and roads link our cities, but it's the unseen network of people who have laid down roots in those white spaces that quietly sustains Wisconsin's forestlands.
Private landowners collectively own about nine million acres of forest, nearly two-thirds of the state's total of almost 16 million wooded acres. There are many, many more trees on these private lands than on public holdings, which account for one-third of the forests. Forest industries and other businesses round out the balance, with slightly more than a tenth. Nurturing private forests will be even more important in the future, as a growing human population demands more products and recreation space.
Once upon a time, the woods owned by ordinary citizens – many of them farmers – were considered by society to be less valuable than cropland. The owners did harvest trees periodically, but there was no special pressure to do so. City and village boundaries were still miles away, and there was no particular concern over land preservation.
But cities and villages no longer are miles away. The price of wooded land has skyrocketed. The lots are getting smaller, the woodland experience is becoming more precious – yet the trees themselves are needed more than ever.
Private woodlands help form critical wildlife habitat and, when kept together in big pieces, create a bulwark against the loss of native species. Private forests offer some of our state's best and most beautiful places to hunt and explore. A renewable resource, trees fuel an economic engine supplying thousands of jobs statewide.
Anyone who finds it worthwhile – financially or psychologically, or both – to keep Wisconsin's private forests intact at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st gives something to the rest of us. Cleaner air and water, improved wildlife habitat, more places to hunt and hike, and a thriving economy are the benefits private woodland owners help provide for everyone. Were those people to cash it all in, our publicly owned lands could not make up the difference.
Consider Loretta Becker and her late husband, Bernard, who as of a decade ago had sold almost 240,000 board feet of hardwoods to sawmills around the state. The Beckers have always relied on DNR foresters, and always had their 335 acres enrolled in forestry tax programs. Or the Whites of Madison, who have dedicated dozens of acres in several counties to wildlife and native plant habitat. They regularly sought advice from DNR foresters and other experts, and got financial help from state incentive programs. Or Sharlotte Coller of Sauk County, who uses the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to grow trees on easily eroded former cropland.
Without these programs, some of Wisconsin's most ardent but little known conservationists wouldn't be able to manage, or to resist the temptation of selling wooded parcels when an eye-popping price comes calling. The tax law programs helped keep the Beckers afloat at a time when land was changing hands and rising in price every few years. With Bernard's ashes now scattered over their 240 acres in the Blue Hills east of Rice Lake, Loretta now regrets not buying one 15-acre piece he'd once favored. But her stance on the land they did buy is firm.
"I have a lot of other things I'd sell before that," she says.
That kind of tenacity is typical of many private woodland landowners. Here's where you'll discover what they've been doing on their forests – for you.
Produced by the DNR Bureau of Forestry; written by Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine staff.