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March 13, 2012

MADISON - The dozen men hired a century ago as Wisconsin's first foresters would certainly understand the tree planting and fire control duties of the 15 foresters recently hired to help manage Wisconsin forests.

But they would likely be amazed by the Global Positioning Systems, Geographic Information Systems, digital aerial photographs, Incident Command System training and modern firefighting equipment that today's forestry professionals use to carry out their modern duties -- and by the changes in the foresters' duties themselves.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently hired 15 foresters to start to address a very high vacancy rate due to recent retirements and limited hiring for the past several years as the Forestry Division faced the difficult fiscal times with frugality. There continue to be 70 forestry positions vacant even with these new employees.

100 years of sustainable forest management

That first group of Wisconsin foresters played an important role in resurrecting Wisconsin's forest lands after decades of cut and run logging had left vast acreages of cut-over, burned-over land.

"I have great admiration for our first chief state forester E.M. Griffith and the first group of 12 employees he hired who started many of the programs that are still critical to today's sustainable forestry practices," said Paul DeLong, Wisconsin's current chief state forester. "Our current forestry employees face very different - but equally daunting challenges in a variety of new issues, including the fight against invasive species that threaten our forest resource."

In 1911, E.M. Griffith, Wisconsin's first chief state forester held the first civil service examination for forest rangers in Rhinelander to hire 12 forest rangers at a salary of $60 per month.

Fred Wilson, one of the successful candidates, reported the examination required them to "identify numbered specimens of twigs, bark and planed lumber. In the afternoon we were taken out to a nearby logging job and required to estimate the board foot volume of a stand of pine and the number of cords of pulpwood in a plot of black spruce, to pace a measured distance along the iced sleigh-haul road, and in pairs to chop through a felled pine tree." Wilson was the only one of the 12 who was trained as a professional forester.

The interview process for the recent hires was also conducted in Rhinelander, but the similarities pretty much end there, according to Rebecca Gass, DNR forestry services section chief.

"Exercises in our current hiring process assessed the ability of the candidate to problem solve, take initiative, show leadership and offer superb customer service since much of our work today is with partners and private forest landowners who own more than half of the forestland in Wisconsin," Gass said. And holding a degree in forestry is a requirement to apply for the forester positions today.

Wisconsin's first foresters spent much of the 1911 and 1912 field seasons building roads and fire lines, erecting lookout tours, and constructing telephone lines to connect the towers to rangers stations. They planted 192,000 seedlings and established the first state tree nursery at Trout Lake, sowing seeds to grow another 2.5 million seedlings that would eventually be planted on lands denuded through lumbering and forest fires. This started the state's forest nursery program that celebrated its centennial in 2011, having produced more than 1.5 billion tree seedlings planted in Wisconsin over the past 100 years.

The recently hired foresters will build on this 100-year legacy of sustainable forest management, but instead of constructing telephone lines or building roads, the new foresters will be out in the woods collecting field data in their hand held GPS units (a space-based satellite navigation system). They will provide advice and technical assistance to private forest landowners, assist county forests and other partners, and promote sustainable forestry practices and best management practices to protect water quality. Today's foresters use aerial and satellite imagery to track changes in forest dynamics. They monitor forests for pests and disease and help coordinate activities to control pests and stop the spread of invasive species that threaten native forests.

This work helps ensure the state has a sustainable flow of wood resources to fuel Wisconsin's forest industry - more than 1,300 companies that employ about 52,700 people and add more than $18.3 billion into the state's economy.

New foresters or old, fire a constant concern

Fire has had a tremendous impact on Wisconsin forests throughout history. One of the first recorded wildfires tore through northern Wisconsin in 1854, running 140 miles from Amery to Iron River. And the single deadliest fire in state history occurred on Oct. 8, 1871, when a massive fire burned portions of eight northeastern counties, obliterating the towns of Peshtigo and Brussels and killing about 1,500 people. With the hiring of the first forest rangers in 1911 and establishment of the forest protection headquarters at Trout Lake, Wisconsin positioned itself to the tackle forest fire issue.

Wildland fire prevention and suppression continue to be an important part of DNR's forestry work, but today's foresters are well-equipped with specialized clothing, equipment, training and fire vehicles to respond to wildfires and other emergencies. State forestry officials work with and train local fire departments in wildland fire suppression, and the state is part of the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact, an agreement that allows DNR to coordinate fire staff and equipment within the Great Lakes region when major wildland fires erupt. Wisconsin foresters also work with forest landowners through the Firewise program to help make sure their homes and properties are safe from wildland fire.

The 2011 hires are undoubtedly grateful for another difference - they use trucks to reach their work sites in the woods. Referring to the 1911 hires, Griffith said, "Each ranger will be obliged to keep one or two saddle horses, as in that way they can cover their districts much more rapidly and save their strength and energy for the various kinds of hard work they will be called upon to do."

The DNR Forestry Division's recently completed a strategic direction that helped determine where to locate the new foresters based on highest priority needs. The new foresters and their work stations are:

Kwabena Antwi, Friendship; Joanna Bietka, Barnes; Chase Christopherson, Boulder Junction: Kirby Dernovsek, Spooner; Chris Duncan, Oconto Falls; Fred Freeman, Peshtigo; John Furr, Webster; Mark Gossman, Webster: Jon Leith, Merrill; Chad Nickols, Necedah; Tom Onchuck, Park Falls; Rachel Peterson, Hayward; Mackenzie Siglinsky, Oconto Falls; Patrick Zimmer, Ladysmith; and Adam Zirbel, La Crosse.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Kari Mulhern, Wisconsin DNR - Division of Forestry, 715-365-8931 or Kirsten Held, DNR forestry outreach specialist - 608-264-6036

Last Revised: Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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