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With a good idea and a little time, the profits locked in trees will reveal themselves to those willing to put in the effort.
To find trees that truly take one's breath away, one should take a wintertime walk in a 100-year-old maple sugar bush, such as the bush that's been in the Lyle Stockwell family of Pierce County for three generations going on four.
Some trees have been tapped continually since the late 1800s, when Merchant Snow, grandfather of Lyle's wife, Shirley, took over the practice from a local band of Native Americans. Cutting the maples down would be folly; a maple tree isn't even old enough to tap until it's been growing for close to half a century.
Even though the Stockwells sometimes wonder what drives their mania to make maple syrup – especially when they recall the year they delayed washing sticky goo from hundreds of buckets until the next season, or the time Lyle got to talking too much and a Jacuzzi-sized kettle of sap boiled down to burnt amber – in the end, it's the love of trees that keeps them going.
"If you enjoy doing maple syrup, you'll hang on to your land for that purpose," he says.
Lots of other landowners are finding ways to glean profits from their woods. The income helps them keep their land, and gives the rest of us a bounty of riches: scores of spectacular wooded vistas, delicious food products like maple syrup and black walnuts, precious habitat for the wildlife we enjoy watching, and raw material for the paper and plywood that help everyday life move forward.
Some entrepreneurs are even turning weedy trees such as buckthorn, prickly ash, and box elder, plus snippets of known beauties like oak and walnut, into one-of-a-kind ballpoint pens and letter openers. A group with a new twist on timbering is marketing the pens, as well as locally grown and milled lumber for flooring, cabinetry and furniture, with the aim of leaving more money in the purses of the forest owners.
The Sustainable Woods Cooperative of Spring Green, along with two similar co-ops farther north, figures that if an owner gets more money by selling the wood at retail instead of wholesaling it through a sawmill, that owner will take more pains to keep and improve the land.
This past winter, one Iowa County resident looked at two possible options for harvesting 40 acres of trees with the goal of leaving healthier trees to replenish the woods and shelter wildlife. Local sawmills, which would have sold the 122,000 board feet of mostly low-grade lumber to yet another buyer, wanted only the better trees and bid about $18,000, roughly the amount it would cost to have the lot logged. But the owner chose to go through the cooperative, which will saw, dry, and market his wood directly to woodworkers, high school shop classes, and fireplace owners. Those buyers will pay full retail prices and sometimes even more, due to increasing interest in protecting the long-term health of forest ecosystems.
By using this method, the owner expects to share in more of the profits from the trees. It may provide incentive for him and for others to keep their wooded tracts together.
Meanwhile, the list of ways for forest owners to find value in their woods never ends, it seems.
Small entrepreneurs are growing botanical herbs such as ginseng and goldenseal in woodlands, plus foods such as shiitake mushrooms, which grow on old logs. Larger companies that buy wood from sawmills all over the state use a tree's chemistry in more mysterious ways: in Manitowoc, the Red Arrow Products Co. drenches wood smoke with water to make liquid smoke. The barbecue sauce that flavored last summer's July 4th steaks may have originated in a Northwoods backyard.
LignoTech of Rothschild takes lignin, a by-product of the acid sulfide pulping process, and uses it to make cement flow better and to strengthen animal feed pellets. Even car batteries need lignin to help them hold a charge, says Jerry Gargulak, LignoTech research manager.
Over in Tomahawk, Fraser Papers looks for white birch all over Wisconsin and elsewhere to produce xylose, also made from lignin. Another company changes the xylose into xylitol, a type of sugar that can't be fermented by normal bacteria. It's particularly useful for toothpaste, chewing gum, pharmaceuticals and other products where tooth decay is a concern.
And, when ingenuity falters, there's always...firewood. But not just your average face cord of hewn oak. No, we're talking convenience – a carefully dried, shrink-wrapped, $3.79 ($4.89 near Chicago) cube of split wood, perfectly sized for an evening's romance before a toasty fire. It could be oak, hickory, or maple, but the packs are united by one trait: each piece was cut from a branch nobody else could use.
Dennis and Harold Norslein of Black Earth's Norske Wood Works sell the foot-high cubes, as well as bigger stacks for fund-raisers and tinier sticks as firestarters, from Detroit to South Dakota and places in between. They get the wood from all over southern Wisconsin.
Harold says there's a philosophy behind their business. "A lot of treetops are left to rot in the woods," he says. "But there's a use for almost anything. You have to find it."
When loggers follow best management practices, the tree harvest benefits the forest owner and the forest, too.
The first hard decision made by the five families who own a forested paradise in the Town of Maple Plain in Barron County was whether they wanted to log any trees at all.
But the popples on 35 acres had run out of steam, and were starting to fall. So Vicky Nelson and five other owners weathered that decision, and moved on to the next: finding a good logger.
The one they chose treated their land with TLC, as Vicky and the others wanted it. He cut only the aspen and basswood the owners had marked, leaving oaks, maples, and pines to grow taller and stronger, to nourish the wildlife they love and to preserve the beauty they enjoy.
And when he saw their little stream, he treated it with care as well. He installed a temporary rock crossing to allow his heavy truck to pass over without causing undue erosion.
He left plenty of trees adjacent to the water to stabilize the banks and provide shade so the water wouldn't get too warm in summer. And after all the trees were cut and the big machines had left, the logger seeded the roads he'd made to prevent future erosion.
Some might contend that since the creek was so little and so local, that any extra dirt and slash in the water, or the felling of nearby trees that shaded it, wouldn't have hurt anything.
Try telling that to the caddis and stone flies that hatch every spring in cold, clear tiny streams like the one in Maple Plain. Waters like these are nurseries for the baby fish until they are big enough to swim downstream, where both two- and four-legged predators wait eagerly. If the water is warmed and depleted of oxygen, and clouded by sediment washed off an exposed bank, the flies and the little fish can die.
With creeks both large and small crisscrossing every square mile of Wisconsin forestland, it's little daily decisions like these that keep our waters gleaming and can prevent a community from wondering where all the good fish went.
In Wisconsin, we call techniques to prevent erosion and water damage "best management practices," and good loggers have used them for years. Lanky Barry Stockwell of Pierce County, son of Lyle and Shirley, with 20 years of logging on his resume, has seen some bad erosion, and he avoids it on his own jobs every way possible. He diverts rainwater from brand-new logging trails into underbrush, so it doesn't wash the soil straight downhill. He places logs lengthwise in a stream for machinery to drive over – the logs allow the water to slip through, and are taken out when the job is finished. Or he finds another route altogether.
These ideas and dozens more are contained in "Wisconsin's Forestry Best Management Practices for Water Quality," a small handbook written especially for loggers, landowners, and field managers by the DNR Bureau of Forestry. The guidelines are mandatory on public lands and voluntary on private lands.
It's new private landowners themselves, however, who are spearheading the drive to cushion the impacts of tree cutting on the land and neighboring waters, according to Barry Stockwell. If a job muddies up a creek and there's dirt washing off tire ruts, he'll hear about it. "People don't like it, and they're gonna complain about it," he says. "You try not to do that. You take care of the woods like it was your own, or I do, anyway."