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The year was 1848, and Wisconsin had just become a state. Cities in the east were growing fast, with nearly every home framed and shingled with wood. Railroads required ties and manufacturers needed wooden boxes to protect their goods. The Midwest timber economy was beginning to boom.
To meet that need, millions of acres of towering northern white pine were logged and shipped downriver. Later, hardwood stands such as maple, basswood and birch were clear-cut. In the south, some forested areas were logged and corn and tobacco plantations took their places.
By 1920, many trees were gone. In their stead loomed miles of raw stump land, which later became a perfect canvas for fire. Hopeful farmers staked their claims and grubbed out the stumps, but the days were short and the soil wrong. The crops didn't grow.
Fast forward to 2005.
You've returned from camping in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, 220,000 acres, boasting over 900 lakes, abundant wildlife and healthy trees. Or, perhaps you listened to wolves howling in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Surely this can't be the same state. What happened to all the stumps?
The answer lies in a story of natural resilience and, after decades of denial, common sense.
The resilience came from the forest: The trees grew back. They weren't necessarily the same species, because growing conditions had changed so dramatically.
However, Wisconsin's forests have rebounded nicely. In 1996, the volume of wood in our forests was 18.5 billion cubic feet, up from 16.5 billion in 1983. That same year, we boasted more 10-foot-or-taller trees (9.8 billion) than we had 13 years earlier (8.4 billion).
That's where human common sense (and political willpower) came in.
One hundred years ago, E.M. Griffith, Wisconsin's first chief state forester, saw a landscape of charred stumps and failed family farms and recognized that something had to change. He offered recommendations, among them creating a forestry research program and forest preserves where the land would revert to trees. At first, Griffith's ideas were rebuffed. Some years later, though, politicians understood their wisdom and the state's forestry program was begun in earnest.
In Wisconsin, careful planning began decades ago and is now paying dividends. In fact, nearly half of our state – 16 million acres – is again forested. Total county forest holdings alone are 2.3 million acres. County forests offer more than 1,200 campsites and thousands of miles of hiking, skiing and snowmobile trails as well as public access to hundreds of lakes and streams.
The Marinette County Forest is one success story. It was among the earliest county forests and today covers 231,596 acres. It is home to deer, bear and many other species, and is a playground for humans who like to ski, ride horses, pick berries and camp.
Marinette County Forest also provides huge quantities of raw forest products for wood-using industries. From 1936 to 1945, all county forests produced about 125,000 cord-equivalents of wood, with revenue of $135,000.
Between 1994 and 1998, the amount of wood that came from county forests had jumped to nearly three million cord-equivalents with corresponding revenue of $46 million.
So what's next?
Modern challenges to our forests come from areas like invasive and forest fragmentation.
The tree known as buckthorn grows quickly and crowds out more desirable species. The emerald ash borer insect kills green and white ash within three years. Nine million ash trees have already been killed by emerald ash borer, mostly in Michigan, and forest specialists fear that the insect will be in Wisconsin soon.
Less obvious, is the damage done by homeowners who build weekend homes as a refuge against urban stress. Trying to reconcile fragmentation and "back to nature" values with those of the working, growing forest can be tricky.
But Wisconsin public and private forest owners are working together to set standards for tackling these and other challenges. In 2004, the Statewide Forest Plan was created.
"Our state's forestry interests are dedicated, progressive and committed to sustainable forestry," says Wisconsin's chief forester Paul DeLong, who serves as chair of the steering team for the Statewide Forest Plan. "The people of Wisconsin care deeply about their forests."
Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Katherine Esposito writes about environmental issues for WNR.