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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

May 1937: Farmers learn methods for proper tree planting to continue the task of reforesting Wisconsin.© Eugene H. Sanborn

The roots of our forest future

Two ideas planted today's forests in firm ground.

Kirsten Held

May 1937: Farmers learn methods for proper tree planting to continue the task of reforesting Wisconsin.

© Eugene H. Sanborn
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Private landowners were key players in regenerating Wisconsin's forests after they were cut and burned early in the century. They played an important role in transforming our state's forest resource from tragedy to triumph.

At the turn of the century, northern Wisconsin was promoted as a treasure chest of rich farmland. Many forests were cut or burned just to get them out of the way for agricultural crops. However, farmers' dreams were dashed by short growing seasons, soil suited for trees but not food crops, and low prices for farm products. It proved to be a tragedy for both the scarred, barren lands and the people who had moved north and were now destitute. Fires raged out of control and expanses of abandoned, burnt land stretched across northern Wisconsin.

Remaining landowners set about replanting the ashes of their forestland with jack pine, white spruce and red pine.

Two early actions by the state helped: establishing the first state tree nursery and passing of the first tax relief program.

The first state tree nursery was planned and built in 1911 at Trout Lake in Vilas County. Its first seedlings were planted to form the Star Lake plantation in 1913. The site is still a showcase for educating private landowners and school groups.

Other nurseries followed as the demand for trees increased. A 10-year project following the Dust Bowl of 1934 encouraged farmers to plant shelter belts of trees to buffet winds and conserve soil. Planting advice and trees were provided free-of-charge. State nurseries produced 38 million seedlings in 1940 during the CCC and WPA work programs and the production peaked at 42 million trees in 1959. Today, the three state tree nurseries at Boscobel, Wisconsin Rapids and Hayward produce about 22 million trees each year to reforest private lands and convert abandoned farm fields to forests.

While Wisconsin had been the world's leading timber producer in the 1890s, producing a million board feet of lumber every two days, the future of private forestry was very much in question by 1920. The vast pinery was gone. Tax-delinquent lands, abandoned by destitute farmers, burdened the counties, even before the Great Depression.

In 1927, the legislature passed the first forest tax incentive program, the Forest Crop Law, which treated land as capital, but timber as income. This meant that people could afford to reforest the land and not pay taxes until the timber was harvested.. Government leaders hoped this voluntary program would reduce tax delinquency, rebuild the local tax base and assure a stable supply of forest products.

A companion law, the Woodland Tax Law of 1954 gave similar benefits to owners of smaller parcels. The two laws were later combined into a Managed Forest Law in 1985. Currently 21,000 landowners controlling more than 2.5 million acres are enrolled.

Since 1936, about 60 percent of Wisconsin's forestland has been owned by private individuals. Technical help to manage these private holdings has been available since 1913. The Wisconsin Conservation Department struck an agreement with the University of Wisconsin in 1925 to start a "farm forestry" program specifically for private landowners. Last year, more than 70 DNR foresters prepared forest stewardship plans for 2,200 landowners, provided technical assistance to an additional 8,096 landowners and referred 1,642 landowners to private forestry consultants. However, we still reach just a fraction of the 200,000 individuals and families who own forestland in Wisconsin. Consulting foresters, UW-Extension foresters, and non-governmental organizations help meet the demand.

Inspecting a three-year old plantation of white and Norway pine, 1960.

© DNR photo
Inspecting a stand of white and Norway pine, 1960.

Today DNR foresters enjoy a close working partnership in landowner education with UW-Extension, Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, the Wisconsin Forest Productivity Council, private consulting foresters and other landowner assistance programs.

Private landowners pulled triumph from Wisconsin's forest tragedy by replanting and harvesting the forest while learning conservation strategies that conserve soil and clean water. They helped create the incentive programs to renew the forest. And they learned to be good stewards so their great-grandchildren can also enjoy the benefits of managing Wisconsin's forest resource.

Kirsten Held is the Forestry Issues Specialist for DNR's Bureau of Forestry.