Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Mulching process to create safe areas for birds and other wildlife. © Todd and Veronica Berg

Edging and feathering are an important part of the mulching process to create safe areas for birds and other wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy and partners recently secured USDA–NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program funds to help private landowners with similar habitat management projects on 11,800 acres by 2020.

April 2015

A Tree-mendous transformation

Young forest partnership fulfills an erstwhile wish.

Story and photos by Todd and Veronica Berg

Shortly after purchasing our small parcel of heaven in northern Wisconsin during early 2008, we discovered through a written document and a subsequent conversation with our legal counsel, that a previous owner nearly 40 years ago made it clear that he hoped that the land would be "used."

He wanted to see the acreage actively managed, enjoyed and fostered for the future. We never forgot that wish. Our goal was simple at the time: shoot a big deer or two and have some grouse and woodcock opportunities for our sporting dog while we made some great lifelong friends.

Little did we know what the land – and along the way some great people who had their own visions and initiatives – had in store for us.

It’s a funny thing about land. You start by being overwhelmed that a couple hundred acres is imposingly large. You get lost on it. Your sense of direction is skewed and time often slips away as you explore different spots and slowly become familiar with each of them.

Like breaking in a good pair of boots, it’s just not quite "right" for a while until you really get comfortable. When you reach that comfort level, though, you get familiar and friendly with the land. Individual trees become landmarks. Valleys and vistas greet you as if awaiting your arrival. The land returns your excitement just by being there.

Small goals led to bigger goals for us. Food plots, a working MFL (Managed Forest Law) plan, turkey forage and habitat, tree planting with youngsters on Arbor Day, firewood cutting and rock picking new clearings with friends made us believe that there’s not a square foot on the entire place that isn’t made completely out of glacial debris.

We found that the days, weeks and years fly by. You catch your breath once in a while and you think that it’s nearly where you’d wanted it to be.

"The gentleman from four decades ago would be proud," you quietly assure yourself.

Then one day you receive a letter that catches your eye: official stationery with signatures and state logos in a nice cover. You read over some of the statistics, some discussion of "the right lands" and about some bird and mammal populations in distress. Suddenly, you realize the arbitrary goal line you established in your mind has been moved yet again. You’re not there yet. There’s more work to be done and you’re the right people, with the right land, for the task at hand.

Through the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill and with the help of the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a consortium of conservation organizations like the Ruffed Grouse Society, private landowners and county foresters like our own Richard Windmoeller, there was a new opportunity. The Young Forest Partnership (YFP) was born. An effort to improve the plight of woodcock, Kirtland’s warbler and several other species was underway.

The stated goal of the YFP is to create young forest tracts within large stands of unproductive highland tag alder and small thin popple (aspen) stands. Cutting, shearing and/or mulching to create forest openings and encourage young growth are the order of the day. Doing so encourages woodcock propagation, warbler production and helps all sorts of other species unable to use the thick, unproductive jungle of overgrown brush.

We compared notes, made a few calls to the biologists, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) representative, our forester and several others. After consultations and some soul searching of our own, we signed an application, hosted a site survey and met with USDA officer Bob Plawski from Medford and DNR biologist Jeremy Holtz from Rhinelander.

Impressed with the dedication, passion and skills of all the staff members, we waited and hoped. Soon after, we received great news. The parcel had been accepted into the new YFP program and young clearings were going to happen.

We were assigned a farm number and signed off on the documents that would provide us a contractual stipend to undertake the cutting. Let the work begin!

In mid–December 2014, on the cusp of Christmas, we met yet another wonderful person in the YFP process. Through the advice and recommendation given to us by Gary Zimmer from the Ruffed Grouse Society and a Wisconsin Natural Resources Board member, we were introduced to Mike Riggle.

Riggle is a semi–retired veterinarian known for an easy smile, a big heart, a penchant for heavy equipment and a love of the land. A bird hunter and conservation–minded guy who "just wanted to give something back," Riggle showed up on a foggy, mucky day, with a really big skid steer and a mulching attachment the size of a Zamboni.

Having previously seen the site, Riggle went to work with the machine. To say it was "easy" would be a stretch. We lovingly refer to our land as "The Classic Hole" and when things go wrong (more often than we’d care to admit), we always joke that "nothing comes easy at The Classic Hole."

The skid steer got stuck once, breaking through the frost line into the mud below. But an hour of chainsaw work, ratchet straps, some heavy chains and a can–do spirit (along with a bunch of mud covering all of us) got it out. Over two outings, Riggle created a 5–acre young forest right before our eyes. It had contoured edges along a river bank with big trees left for cover, irregular borders and wide openings.

To the untrained eye, you’d think a hurricane went through. But to the initiated, it was indeed a beautiful, chaotic young forest in its infancy – a deep breath being inhaled by an area long choked off to the light of the sun and the feel of the wind. We’re told that the woodcock will use it right away this spring. They’ll be heard "peenting" in the warm April nights and we can’t wait to watch and listen.

The warblers, hares, fox, fisher, grouse, deer, turkeys and others will greatly benefit. In fact, we witnessed deer, grouse, rabbit and fox tracks in the new cut within 48 hours of completion and saw a fisher firsthand working the edge of the river on one of the days we worked with Riggle – a first glimpse for us in the wild.

In three to four years, the woodcock will nest and live there seasonally. This project will help them prosper and just maybe help reverse their long–term population decline.

The land will indeed be "used" and that is exactly what previous stewards of this land had hoped for. We’re honored to help fulfill the wishes of previous owners and visionaries and even more so, to be a part of the inaugural Young Forest Partnership. Most of all, we hope to do even more. There’s more work to be done in the years ahead and we relish that opportunity.

We encourage other Wisconsin landowners to investigate their land and the potential for YFP involvement. We heartily urge you to do so; you’ll be helping the birds and animals and we downright guarantee that you’ll feel better about yourself and your own legacy.

During a quiet moment, when all the equipment is gone and the cacophony has died down, the land and its inhabitants will quietly thank you on a gentle whiff of wind, excited that you’re together once again.

Todd and Veronica Berg write from Minocqua, Wis.