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When European settlers landed on our shores they saw what appeared to be a never-ending forest stretching to the west. That vast forest expanse was not all old-growth. Wind, fire and insects along with burning by Native Americans created a patchwork of young and old forests. However, large tracts of old-growth forests dominated many of the forested regions.
Beginning in the late 1700's, the U.S. General Land Office began a Public Land Survey that delineated township and section boundaries and mapped the vegetation to determine its value and suitability for settlement. In Wisconsin this survey occurred between 1832 and 1866. Interpretation of those early survey notes can be difficult, but it has given us a fair view of what those forests looked like.
Beginning in the mid-1800's and continuing through about 1920, extensive logging occurred in Wisconsin. It started with pine cutting, mostly white pine, which was abundant throughout much of the western Great Lakes states. Large areas in northern Wisconsin where the pine was particularly prevalent were called pineries.
Logging camps were concentrated near waterways since pine logs float and could be transported by water. Historical writings are full of stories of the river drive days and the rugged individuals who endured the hardships of that era.
Historical accounts in literature also express the concern some felt for the early forests. Increase Lapham, a pioneer in the conservation movement in Wisconsin, stated in 1855, "It is much to be regretted that the very superabundance of trees in our state should destroy, in some degree, our veneration for them. They are looked upon as cumberers of the land; and the question is not how they shall be preserved, but how they shall be destroyed."
By the 1920's most of the pine accessible by water was logged. Narrow-gauge railroads opened other areas and logging of vast stands of hardwoods and hemlock began. The network of railways was extensive and some of the road system we travel on today originated as railroads. Most of the remaining uncut timberlands were cleared, with the hardwoods going to area sawmills and the hemlock utilized mostly for its bark in tanning mills.
"The nearly complete removal of old-growth in the late 1800's and early 1900's was an example of unregulated unsustainable logging that in no way reflects the modern forestry practices that have developed since then," says Paul DeLong, the state's chief forester.
What once seemed like an endless barrier and timber resource all but vanished in less than a human lifetime. The resulting landscape was in stark contrast to what those first settlers, land surveyors and lumberjacks saw. People could see for miles where once they could barely see the sun. What was once mostly old-growth pine or mixed hardwood forest in northern and central Wisconsin was replaced with brush.
The slash and debris left by the extensive timber cutting kindled forest fires across the land that left the landscape even more bleak. But from the brush and ashes sprang new forests that are now our second-growth forests. Except for a few scattered stands and some conifer swamps that escaped the ax and fires, virtually all the original old-growth forests are gone. Some of the tree species diversity of the old forests, such as white pine and hemlock was reduced in many areas.
Surviving benchmarks of the past
Although all forests are impacted to some degree by humans, some places in the Great Lakes states were not logged, logged very lightly, or logging ceased many years ago. Places such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and the Porcupine Mountains and the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan's Upper Peninsula are well known examples.
Although differing from each other in the type of forest, from aspen-fir to hemlock-hardwood, each is valued for its relatively "natural" character or relict condition. However, they have changed and will continue to change. They are functionally altered and both natural and human disturbances impact the ecosystems. We tend to think of them as large areas, but relative to what they once were they are very small. Nevertheless they do show us what much of our forests once looked like at a time not that long ago. It's a forest condition that seems to draw people in search of solitude, recreation and perhaps a spiritual experience.
There are other old-growth survivors out there, but they are not so well known. They too are not pristine, and have had some type of cutting or disturbance by humans. These areas include some state natural areas, some state parks, some designated small wilderness and some privately owned tracts. In appearance they may look like old-growth forests, but because of their small size or past changes, they probably do not function ecologically as pre-European settlement old-growth.
Then there are certain managed lands, public, tribal and industrial lands, that have some of the components or characteristics that are associated with old-growth. However, these lands are managed for commercial wood products. The 220,000 acres of commercial forest land on the Menominee Indian Reservation is well known in Wisconsin. Tribal forest management goes back to the late 1800s, yet to the casual observer much of the Menominee Reservation appears much like old-growth prior to the turn of the century.
There are huge white pine, hemlock and hardwoods uncommon to most other managed areas. The difference is that this forest was not cleared and burned as was most of Wisconsin, so the management starting point on the Menominee Indian Reservation was much different than elsewhere. Another difference is that these tribal lands have lower numbers of deer relative to other areas, which in part accounts for abundant Canada yew and hemlock in the forest understory. Also, forest management goals and techniques are somewhat different.
Two relatively large private industrial tracts in Wisconsin, the 35,000-acre tract managed by Nicolet Hardwoods, and the 65,000-acre Goodman Tract now owned by International Paper Company, appear different from surrounding lands. Both of these holdings have been managed for commercial sawtimber for a long time (since the 1940s and 1927 respectively), but two differences stand out.
Hemlock, a key component of the pre-European old-growth forests of northern Wisconsin, is more abundant on these large tracts than on most other managed lands. Also, the trees are generally older and larger and uneven aged. Again, one significant difference is that these two tracts were not cleared and burned during the early logging and settlement days as were most other lands in Wisconsin.
On both of these industrial forests hemlock is cut as part of normal logging activity, though hemlock has remained a major component of their forests for decades. These intensively managed industrial timberlands appear very natural and somewhat like old-growth.
"Current management guidelines and policies promote sustainable forestry, including reserve areas for no timber harvesting, and silvicultural techniques such as extended periods between harvests to encourage old-growth characteristics," DeLong says.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.