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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1998

Trees have value for the economy and the environment. © DNR Photo

Sustaining the changing forest

Trends from the latest forest survey show landowners change more quickly than trees mature. Close contact between foresters and private landowners will keep the forest growing.

Katherine Esposito

Trees have value for the economy and the environment.

© DNR Photo
Balancing "wood goods" and habitat
Seeing forest changes
Knowing when and what to cut
Planning to reach common goals
The Managed Forest Law Program

C.R. Robinson and Jack Edson, timber owners each, haven't spent much time mulling over "potential productivity classes" or "growing stock volume." Indeed, ask Robinson, a former insurance underwriter, what these forestry terms mean and the response is dead silence. "I haven't thought about that at all," he says. And why should he?

But one year, after a state forester parted a thick stand of red maple on Edson's acres and found 12-foot oak trees within, neither needed a textbook to know Edson had gotten lucky. Thin those maples out, the man told Edson, let the oaks stretch and grow, help the land produce to its potential. Well, perhaps the forester didn't speak those exact words, but Edson took his advice, and was grateful for it.

"I'd never walked in to see, but, lo and behold, here were some oaks," says Edson, a retired physician living with his wife on 200 heavily wooded acres near Eau Claire. "If we trimmed [the maples] around the oaks, we'd end up with a pretty good oak stand. [The forester's visit] made me look at the area differently "

A few hundred miles away, on a gray day at the 280-acre family farm near Westfield, Robinson and another DNR forester stepped over wayward red pine branches and bundles of browning needles – slash remaining from a harvest not long before. Forty years earlier, C.R. and his five brothers had planted the pines too close together, and the trees crowded in. The family finally called in a logger, and the 4,000 red pines sold for pulp brought in $10,000, enough to pay for repairs, improvements and, of course, more trees.

Two acres here, eight acres there – it's little parcels like these that form the statistics that lumber companies, papermakers and scores of small sawmills across the state use to gauge what wood is available for them for manufacturing and milling. And that data, page after page of it, is available for the asking in a half-inch thick report called "Wisconsin Forest Statistics, 1996," published last fall by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with generous assistance from the Department of Natural Resources.

Reading the report could numb some minds, but not Bill Gilbert's, who says he peruses it "very carefully." Gilbert, group manager for forest resources with Georgia Pacific in Port Edwards, says the company buys most of its wood from Wisconsin forests, and needs to know what they can buy now as well as what to expect in the future. They receive some information annually, but the periodic statewide survey is more complete. "It's something we've all been waiting for a couple of years," Gilbert says.

Acquiring the facts to document forest trends is not a project for the easily distracted. It took three years and 40 people to gather the field data and one more year to assemble it, adding up to thousands of hours of work.

Evaluating tree stock on a forest parcel.
Evaluating tree stock on a forest parcel. Field data is used to document forest trends.

© Katherine Esposito

Over 250 missions were flown over almost every inch of Wisconsin to take special black-and-white infrared photographs, which were examined by specialists who classified the tree cover. Each 9" by 9" photograph covers four square miles of Wisconsin, and copies are for sale. (Contact your local DNR forester, or call the DNR Bureau of Forestry at (608) 266-5202).

It didn't end with the pictures, however. Many more workers returned to the field to verify what the photographs indicated, and to take further measurements.

The report contains some fascinating tidbits for those interested in the woods and the wildlife that dwells in them. A colorful summary brochure is available for the general public. Here are some of those details:

  • In a world stricken with worry over tropical deforestation, Wisconsin enjoys the reverse – we grow more trees than we cut. This is due to many factors, chief among them the fact that land heavily logged and burned a century ago is reverting back to woods. We have over one million additional acres of forestland in our state today than we had in 1968.

  • Aspen, which became a tree of choice for hungry papermills after papermakers figured out how to use it, is still abundant, but is declining. The species easily established itself at the start of the 20th century, because aspen loves the barren, sunny fields that had become so common. And many types of animals, including deer, ruffed grouse and woodcocks, love the aspen too. But these trees die off sooner than others, so uncut stands are eventually succeeded by longer-lived trees nearby.

  • The state lost about 265,000 acres of aspen between 1983 and 1996. Much of the remaining aspen is in stands dominated by maples and basswood where the aspen will be overtaken by these taller shade-tolerent trees. The change will pose challenges for firms and animals now dependent on the historically plentiful aspen. Other tree species also on the wane include jack pine and paper birch, for similar reasons.

  • Most of the rise in forested land has taken place in morthern Wisconsin. In 10 northeastern counties, three-quarters of all land is forested and woodlands grew by 400,000 acres between 1983 to 1996. But in southern and eastern parts, from Green County up to Door County, only 13 percent is wooded, and in some counties, even smaller percentages as subdivisions and shopping malls spread.

  • For a state uncommonly dependent on trees, boasting about 1,900 forest products companies and employing nearly 100,000 people, there is a surprising reliance on thousands of individual landowners to supply timber and pulpwood. Fifty-seven percent of Wisconsin's woodlands – more than nine million acres – is owned private individuals and families, with parcels changing ownership every seven years, on average.

  • Counties, towns and cities contribute 15 percent, the next largest share, while the forest industry owns only seven percent.

    Chart of forest ownership. Moonlit Ink, ©1998

  • Little decisions such as the ones made in 1940, when the Robinsons began to nurture a grove of pines, and in the winter of 1997, when Jack Edson decided to thin some maples, have a tremendous impact on the entire state. Reaching the rest of the tree-owning public and forming management plans with so many people who have not previously grown trees is the biggest challenge of all.

A balance between "wood goods" and habitat

From a state stripped of much of its arboreal majesty a hundred years ago, to an environmental ethic that today leads some people to vow never to fell a single tree, the views of Wisconsin landowners have always resonated far beyond their fences. While it's hard to see how the practices of one person can carry much weight, it shouldn't be difficult to understand how the timber on 10 five-acre parcels can add up to a lot of wood products. ("You're writing on it. You're blowing your nose in it," says Jim Kronschnabel, a DNR forester based in Montello, in describing what would happen to the pines taken from Robinson's lot.) While no one hopes for a return to boundless clear-cutting, refusing to log any trees carries a price, too, for individuals and the economy.

Edson's goal, not only as a landowner but as president of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, a private educational group, is similar to many foresters'. The idea, he says, is to teach sound reasons to grow and cut some trees, while leaving other areas for wildlife and humans to enjoy.

He has not always held these views. "When we first came in, we wanted to leave everything as nature had it," Edson says. "But I've been brainwashed – uh, educated – by the forest-type people," he adds, with a chuckle.

Those "forest-types" – either a DNR or private forester – sometimes advocate clear-cutting a parcel, a practice some people abhor. In fact, Edson was initially among them. In 1984, however, faced with 40 acres of scrubby oak that was good only for railroad ties and firewood, he finally ordered the field leveled.

Today, the healthy young oaks that replaced them are sheltering wildlife and impressing visitors. "For a year or two, it sure looked like a calamity," he says. "This idea of clear-cutting, to have a more vibrant forest, is something I've learned." In fact, the method is the best way to assure new stocks of aspen.

Clear-cutting can restore some neglected forest parcels to vigorous health.
Clear-cutting can restore some neglected forest parcels to vigorous health.

Ironically, on the Edson's 36th wedding anniversary in 1994, a tornado whipped through part of his property and knocked down 30 more acres of trees, which were subsequently carted away for pulpwood. "If you don't clear-cut, nature does," he says.

Edson's forest management plan now leaves room on his 200 acres for many different purposes. Some places are managed for oak and pine. He has planted about 70,000 seedlings over the years, half by hand. Some areas are left undisturbed for wildlife. Elsewhere, he has created trails for hikers and ponds for frogs and beavers. And last summer, Edson embarked on an ambitious plan to restore eight acres to prairie.

Seeing forest changes

The future of Wisconsin's forests lies in contacting private landowners, accommodating different views, educating people about the benefits of tree management and wildlife habitat, and encouraging them to get involved, Edson believes. "People see forests, and think they're like statues, they don't change," he says. "People forget forests are changing all the time."

Education means checking in with a forester on occasion, whether someone from the DNR or hired privately. That person can help identify changes in the woodlot, suggest which areas are ready for cutting, and mark specific trees.

Knowing when to give up may be part of the plan, too. That's what Edson may do with a small, aggressive stand of red maples that are crowding out other desirable trees. The maples are beautiful in autumn, but currently are used mainly to make plywood and interior framing for furniture. The species might have a more interesting commercial future if the companies decide to invest their money in researching new ideas.

That's what happened to aspen 30 years ago, says Terry Mace, a DNR forest products specialist who worked on the inventory. Aspen were so abundant and so seemingly useless, you couldn't give them away, Mace says, but the first industries were using other species. But new technology developed in the 1960s, gave the forest industries new ways to use the plentiful trees, he says.

Knowing when and what to cut

Despite the good news about the state's forests, plenty of challenges remain. Some people are concerned that the most valuable hardwoods, such as red oak, black walnut, and cherry are being cut before reaching their prime. In some areas, that may be the case, agreed Vern Everson, DNR forest resource analyst. But in northern Wisconsin, oak stocks appear to be on the rise.

When it comes to choosing a logger, state foresters recommend caution. Some unscrupulous woodcutters, called "gypsies" by Jim Kronschnabel, prey on older farmers. These loggers take only the best trees and leave the sick and dying, a practice called "high-grading." They also may offer a landowner far less than market price for a load of logs. One owner was offered $3,000 for a stand, which he eventually sold to a different logger for $36,000, according to Kronschnabel. That owner became curious and asked a forester's advice, he says. Unfortunately, many people don't.

C.R. Robinson knew better, and called on Kronschnabel. Last year, after marking the proper trees to be cut on the Robinson property, the forester reviewed the four bids the family had received. He told them what he knew of the loggers' past work. The harvest, which is done with big machines with jaws like giant tin snips, leaves behind tire ruts and slash piles, but that will all disappear within five years, Kronschnabel says.

Planning to reach common goals

Woodland owners can even receive property tax relief whether they manage their lands primarily for recreation, timber income, or wildlife habitat. The 25,000 landowners now enrolled in the Managed Forest Law program recognize that providing trees to Wisconsin sawmills is as essential to the economy as is environmental protection and shelter for animals.

On the back cover of the Forest Statistics report an unimposing paragraph explains why dozens of recent forestry graduates spent three years tromping the woods with compasses and angle gauges to collect the data within.

Trees have value for the economy and the environment. © DNR Photo
Trees have value for the economy and the environment.

© DNR Photo

It speaks of the diversity of the forests, of the people who own them, and the conflicting demands of the people who use them.

Jack Edson thinks about that too. His goal is to steer hundreds of small property owners toward more cooperative land management – an arrangement that would informally join lands that share certain natural features, allow careful logging and provide habitat for animals. Landowners don’t need to mirror each other's ideas, Edson says, but occasionally checking in with one's neighbors could help the overall environment.

"Ecosystem is a buzzword, but a good one," he says. "A lot of people love trees, and want to get away from it all. But there's a lot more you can learn to do with woodlands." And tools like the periodic forest survey help.

Katherine Esposito writes for Wisconsin Natural Resources from Madison.