Wildlife and forestry experts work together to manage state forests to balance environmental, social and economic benefits.
Wisconsin's forests benefit from active management
Forest plans enhance ecological diversity and expand recreational and economic opportunities.
Story and photos by Jennifer Sereno
If you want to be a tree hugger, you have to cut some trees.
Joe Hovel, who has practiced sustainable forestry for more than 30 years, offers up this seeming paradox as he stands under a cathedral ceiling of hardwood boughs and leafy green. The proof of what he preaches covers the surrounding 400 acres in the town of Conover, where selection cutting allows sunlight to pierce the dense canopy and reach the forest floor to invigorate a new generation of trees.
"The overarching goal is to keep the forest in good health," says Hovel, whose family owns this Vilas County land covered with a diversity of hardwoods, pine, aspen and birch. "You have to monitor the changing conditions and, at times, make adjustments."
It's a lesson that is increasingly important as the Department of Natural Resources works with public and private landowners to strengthen forested lands through active management and sustainable forestry practices. Doing so is no easy job.
Wisconsin's 17.1 million acres of public and private forested lands are aging, and with them, the experienced loggers who possess the skills, knowledge and equipment needed to help the forests grow in health and diversity. Public misunderstanding about the important role of strategic forest management complicates the picture.
"Forest management is a dynamic process and many people find timber cutting to be disconcerting," says Jeff Olsen, a DNR forestry team supervisor who covers an area including the Northern Highland–American Legion State Forest. "But we're managing our forests in ways that support growth and regeneration. The logger is the engine that keeps our forest management plans alive."
Working with public and private partners, the department is addressing the challenges of modern–day forest management with a combination of technical experience, education and initiatives that put science–based principles into practice. Leading by example, the department is making steady gains in reducing the backlog of timber on state lands that needs to be cut to implement approved, forest–specific master plans that ensure a long–term balance of ecological, recreational and economic considerations.
"A major part of the planning process involves integrating input from citizens and working with a variety of groups," Olsen says. "The plans also incorporate input from wildlife experts and silviculturists as well as experts on lakes, watersheds and public amenities such as trails and roads."
Loaded on a semitrailer awaiting the trip to the sawmill, logs from a forest thinning project in the town of Plum Lake tell an important tale about Wisconsin's Northwoods. The forests that covered some 22 million acres of the state during pre–settlement times disappeared more than a century ago.
Groundbreaking partnerships among federal, state and private interests led to the historic replanting of Wisconsin's northern forests, often with fast–growing jack pine, white spruce and red pine. Wisconsin's first state tree nursery was planned and built in 1911 at Trout Lake in Vilas County and today, it's time for some of the early plantings from the nursery to make way for a more diverse mixture of trees, including the longer–living white pine and hardwoods.
"Forestry is a long–term practice," Olsen says, noting the struggle to balance early successional species such as white birch and aspen with slower maturing white pine and oak. "It takes time to replicate what was naturally here."
As part of the effort, the department establishes timber harvest goals on the more than 975,000 acres of state forest land and works with private and county landowners to achieve similar beneficial outcomes that respect the unique local soils, waters, wildlife and modern–day uses or goals for various properties. Through this active management, the department creates current environmental, social and economic benefits while ensuring there is more to come for future generations.
For example, Wisconsin's forest and paper products industry generates total production valued at nearly $19 billion each year and employs more than 46,800, according to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Despite this productivity, the number of forested acres in the state continues to grow while the trees themselves get bigger. Each year, state forests produce about 490 million cubic feet of timber growth while about 332 million cubic feet is removed.
Significant success; challenges to come
While the benefits of harvesting timber may be clear, getting the job done is not always easy. Guiding the allowable harvests are property–specific master plans that require significant reconnaissance, including identifying and marking individual trees.
"Foresters conduct the inventories and draft the plans, then set up the sales," Olsen says. "We put the sales up for public bid and loggers who meet the requirements compete for the contracts. Then, we monitor the logging activity."
Roger Pluedeman, Eagle River, is a master logger working on some of the stands. Gaining the elite master logger designation requires a significant investment in documentation, performance and career development, and puts him in the company of just 55 master loggers statewide.
His credentials make him a good fit for the job: maneuvering his computer–controlled timber processor through a carefully marked stand of mixed hardwoods and softwoods in Vilas County. With amazing dexterity, he directs the machine's retractable arm to carefully cut, trim and section logs from the marked trees.
He notes that the DNR's plan for the property includes leaving some deadwood "snags" to provide forage and habitat for animals and birds.
"We're here to fulfill our part of the plan," he says, and from the recent signs of pileated woodpeckers tearing up large swatches of the standing dead wood for bugs, there's evidence it's working.
In recent years, hard work by Pluedeman and others has helped the department significantly reduce its backlog of timber sales, providing an economic boost to the region. During 2011–2013 for example, DNR lands achieved 118 percent of the long–term harvest goal statewide, an illustration of the department's success in reducing the number of backlogged harvests. Currently, on all DNR lands, approximately 45,000 acres remain backlogged for harvest evaluation, yet this is a 58 percent reduction from the 107,000 acres backlogged in 2011.
In comparing the six–year average saw log volume for 2002–2007 versus 2008–2013, for established, sold and completed sales, there are 53 percent, 50 percent and 58 percent respective increases in log volume. Beyond the obvious economic, ecological and social benefits of this logging is another significant advantage — a reduction in wildfire potential.
Yet keeping up the current pace of timber sales and further reducing the backlogged harvests may prove challenging in the years ahead as the industry faces a declining number of loggers.
Family businesses, diverse solutions sustain state forests
Pluedeman says the comforts of his heated timber processor cab make the job more pleasant and a lot safer than the days when most of his work was done on foot with a chainsaw in the dead of winter. Computer controls also appeal to a more technologically savvy younger generation of operators.
"A younger person who is used to the hand–eye coordination needed for working the joystick would find those skills to be a big part of it," he says. Yet the high cost of today's equipment presents a new and more challenging business model than the days when the chainsaw served as the primary tool.
The Department of Natural Resources and forestry industry support educational opportunities, on–the–job training and the possible development of loan programs as diverse solutions to the aging demographics of the state's forest management industry. Henry Schienebeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, says the association also is working to encourage federal changes that would allow the sons and daughters of logging business owners to participate in forest work at age 16 instead of 18.
"The agricultural community can do this and has had success in bringing an up–and–coming generation into family operations," Schienebeck says. The diversification of some existing family businesses offers another promising route.
Lee Steigerwaldt, chief operations officer of Steigerwaldt Land Services in Tomahawk, represents the third generation of her family to participate in the business and she has every intention of contributing to the operation's sustainable growth. A certified general appraiser, forester and arborist with a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry from the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, she specializes in forest appraisals and strategic planning using the latest technology for a variety of clients.
Today's best practices in forest management are based on science and balance, she says, with careful attention to the ideal use and potential of the land in conjunction with the owner's goals. When success is achieved, the results often serve to inspire the next generation.
"The ground that I'm standing on right now used to be pastureland," Steigerwaldt says, pointing to the maple sugar bush forest that produces enough syrup to treat the family's numerous clients and educational groups that visit the land each year. "That's what sustainable forestry is all about."
Jennifer Sereno is a public affairs manager for DNR's Office of Communications.