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Much private wooded property is open for public use – if you know how to ask.
When it comes to hunting space, Adams County might not be the first place that comes to mind.
Look on a state highway map, and you won't see any shaded green blocks that signify big expanses of state, county or federal forests. A greenhorn hunter might aim for Jackson County instead, where half the county is public forest. It turns out, though, that there is prime hunting space in Adams County on the white-colored private lands between roads and towns. And there's a lot of it – 444 parcels each forty acres square. Nekoosa Papers owns most of the parcels, but many other spots are owned by everyday people who also get a break on their property taxes by allowing hunters onto their lands.
In the Town of Adams alone, 51 blocks of forty acres each are owned by Nekoosa and open to hunters. Consolidated Papers owns a handful more, and two private citizens fill out the rest.
The woodland owners who participate in state forest tax programs give the public something in return: a place to play.
Statewide, 2.5 million acres of land owned by 25,000 landowners are enrolled in forest tax programs. While not every acre is open for public use, most provide hundreds of places for hunting, fishing, skiing and hiking.
The basic idea is to select the woodlands you want to explore ahead of time. But finding those places takes work. Here are some tips:
The Department of Natural Resources publishes a computer listing of properties enrolled in the Forest Crop Law program, which are open for public hunting and fishing, and also for properties under the Managed Forest Law, which are available for hunting, fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing or sightseeing. You'll be charged 10 cents per page for the printouts. In some southern and southeastern Wisconsin counties, no properties are enrolled; in central and northern counties, the printouts can run to 20 pages or more. Ask for an order form for the Forest Tax Law Printouts by writing the DNR Information Center, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707. You'll also find the order form online.
Each printout lists the owner's name, how long the property will be enrolled in forest tax law programs, and map coordinates – township, range, section and quarter section. Use these printouts side-by-side with county plat books to locate the lands.
For easiest access, try an industrial forest, which comprises almost half of the properties enrolled in forest tax programs. Many corporate owners produce brochures about their wooded properties and offer maps with plenty of detail. Their lands often are posted with signs to assist visitors.
If you seek other private woodlands, you'll need to get the landowner's mailing address from the county treasurer. Permission to enter these open tax law lands is not required, but keep in mind the following restrictions: Public "access" gives you the right to walk on these properties only during legal hunting, fishing or other recreational seasons and hours. You can't camp, pick berries or mushrooms, or trap without permission, and you can use only portable blinds and stands unless you and the landowner agree on something more permanent. You don't have the right to drive your vehicles onto these lands, or to trespass on closed lands.
It's best to contact private landowners at least several weeks ahead of your hunting, fishing or hiking trips. First, you'll want time to establish a courteous relationship; people like to know who is on their property, even if it is open to the public. Second, the owner may indeed let you drive cars onto the property, and point out paved roads, dirt roads, fence lines or easements available to you. Third, if you are hunting, the landowner can advise you if other people will be hunting on the property at the same time.
If you are refused permission, work through the local forester to resolve the issue. Don't break trespass laws, damage fences or take other steps to antagonize landowners.
Contacting landowners early is important. Hunters who wait to request permission until the last few days before gun and bow deer seasons open are often disappointed, says Carol Nielsen, DNR's assistant forest tax supervisor. "They contact DNR in a hurry to get the forms, then they contact the landowner just before the season," she notes. "That's a poor time to ask permission, because landowners may be hunting the property themselves or may have family and friends using the site."
She advises hunters to start looking as early as summer, and to use common sense and everyday courtesy: pick up trash, leave fences intact, and pay attention to boundaries.
Manners don't always prevail, unfortunately. Some items found in the woods owned by the Timber Company of Port Edwards include old tires, washing machines, lawn mowers and car batteries, says Doug Maurer, a senior analyst. Still, the money saved in taxes outweighs the drawbacks of picking up the trash. The firm has 250,000 acres from Adams to Bayfield counties in the Managed Forest Law program, and those forests are taxed at less than half the rate for woods not enrolled.
Woodland owners are building a place to teach each other and plant the seeds of self-help forestry.
It's the rare person who gets to sustain a pleasant childhood memory into perpetuity, but it happened for Elvira Seno. As a child, Elvira lived with her family near Burlington, and she enjoyed visiting friends who lived in an old stone house on 131 acres to the east. There, she and her friends explored the woods, tromped around the swamp and caught grasshoppers near the grassy farm fields.
Elvira was a determined person who became a determined physician in the days before women were welcome in the field. She had a distinguished career as an Army doctor serving in several overseas posts, working later in Veterans Administration hospitals stateside. When Dr. Seno retired in 1974, she learned that the wonderful homestead she had visited as a child was for sale, so she bought it and lived there for 20 years before her death in 1996.
Dr. Seno settled in, but she didn't settle down. She rented out the tillable land and set about planting the rest in trees. She made plans with foresters, cruised the hardwoods, removed brushy invaders, culled out weak saplings and harvested mature trees. She learned to use a planting spud to hand-plant thousands of trees. When she had to give up physical labor during her last three years, she brought in mechanical tree planters. A total of 49,000 trees took root on 44 acres of the fallow fields and pasture.
"During those last few years, she realized that the only way to make sure the property stayed the way she remembered it would be to find someone who could guarantee it would not be developed," recalls her brother, Les Seno, a retired Beloit dentist. She tried to interest several organizations and finally turned to other woodland owners through a nonprofit educational organization, the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association.
Dr. Seno fully enjoyed her trees, fields, wildlife and flowers, and she wanted to find a way to pass on the practical advice she had learned to other folks. One of her goals was to provide a forest learning center for area schools, forest landowners and the area's large urban population.
At the Seno Woodland Management Center, her vision survives. The forest center, located five miles south of Burlington and seven miles east of Lake Geneva, is now slowly taking shape. It can be found off County Highway P, where Walworth, Kenosha and Racine counties meet.
Less than 35 miles from Milwaukee and Chicago, less than an hour from Janesville and Beloit, the center is well situated to serve adults and students alike who spend more time on the pavement than in the pines. A perpetual easement, held by DNR, ensures the land will remain as a forest and outdoor learning center.
A parking lot has been built, and the foundation of an old barn will be shored up this spring before it is renovated into a classroom and conference room. An old stone house has been renovated into a property manager's cottage. A garage has been cleaned out so visitors have a dry place to get out of the rain.
Staffing is lean. There are a couple of part-time caretakers, a property coordinator and Dr. Les Seno. He lends a hand building birdhouses, pruning trees, sprucing up trails, erecting signs and renovating buildings.
Plans for the center are ambitious and Property Coordinator Jerry Lapidakis has the drive and optimism to make it happen, with help. Visitors will enter the site near two acres of buildings adjoining a parking lot. The 77-foot barn will be the focal point for activities, meetings and exhibits. A garage, sheds and even an old chicken house could be made into meeting space. A screen house might become a butterfly house and the old brood house would make a dandy greenhouse. An observation pavilion on a high point would provide an excellent overview of the woods and fields.
The Seno property's greatest strength is the opportunity to show visitors sound land use, practical research and forest management in a small space. Sixty-six acres are covered with trees, including 20 acres of natural hardwoods and 44 acres where oaks, white ash, sugar maple and black walnuts were planted. An eight-acre stand of oak was cut 20 years ago and shows how a well-planned harvest can naturally regenerate trees. The red oak, white oak and black walnut now in that stand are 20 feet high and growing.
As the old fencerows are plucked clean of exotic species like multiflora rose, European buckthorn and honeysuckle, they are being replanted with native shrubs. These will provide both food and cover to wild turkeys, deer, foxes, coyotes, mink, skunks, chipmunks, muskrats, rabbits, and woodchucks. More than 125 bird species have been spotted on the property, with some setting up housekeeping in Dr. Seno's bluebird and wood duck houses.
Three acres have been planted in prairie grasses and another four acres with large bur oaks is turning into an oak savanna. Several smaller openings of a quarter-acre or less will be kept as oak savanna openings containing grasslands and wildflowers. A few fields adjoining wooded areas will be planted with native tall-grass prairie species.
A wetland bog and tamarack marsh on the north end will provide a place to study the trees, plants and animals that thrive in wet soils. The Senos built and maintained trails throughout the property, but the wetland area will need a boardwalk to keep visitors dry and away from fragile stands of plants.
Dr. Elvira Seno stipulated that the property should be used for active research on the issues private landowners face. "Part of what will make us different from a nature center will be the research plots and the chance to provide training grounds for state agencies, local resource agents, schools and youth leaders," Lapidakis says.
"Our property plan calls for research plots to demonstrate erosion control techniques, ways to plant and harvest trees that maintain water quality, soil studies and urban forests. We also have a special mission to provide urban residents with the opportunity to study andtrees, and to create programs for those who own small properties of one to ten acres.
"We also want demonstrations for city-lot homeowners that show proper shade tree selection, landscaping, backyard forestry and maybe some specialty plots like a small butterfly garden."
The site will be more accessible when there are toilets, meeting rooms and a little more finished space, but that hasn't stopped some nearby educators. The Burlington area schools, Badger High School in Lake Geneva, along with naturalists from the DNR and George Williams College in Williams Bay, are organizing teacher workshops at the Seno Center. And a class from New Trier High School in a northern Chicago suburb is considering a research project here.
"We have a lot of dreams for the Seno property," Lapidakis says. "We want to work with nearby nature centers and schools. We want to provide research space for small projects and we'd like to stress private land management to show the kinds of activities individual landowners can do. We also want to show people who don't own any land that it's important to preserve and manage these private lands and small woodlots that make up the majority of Wisconsin's forests. Meeting these goals will fulfill Dr. Seno's dream for her farm."