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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1999

The quiet forests logo 


Big benefits from small holders
Help for woodland owners

When is small too small?
Wildlife in and on woodlands

Working the woodlot
Plan to do it right

Permission to come aboard
On a few acres

When is a small woodlot too small?

Development pressures can splinter private woodlands. Some owners are working hard to keep woodlots together and create thriving habitat.

In St. Croix County, it's urban dwellers from the Minneapolis area that want vacation homes in the woods. In Sauk County, it's people from the greater Madison area looking for the same thing. In Dane County, it's developers of subdivisions and shopping malls absorbing every nearby pasture. Every year more forest and cropland gets chopped into smaller and smaller parcels, and the trend is creating a new set of challenges.

Sharlotte Coller, a dreamer from Sauk County, and "George," a resolute owner of 27 wooded acres just west of Madison, are confounding that trend. It's not an easy one to buck.

The statistics are staggering. Fifty years ago, according to DNR estimates, there were about 130,000 owners of private woodlands, many of them farmers with several hundred acres, who didn't flinch when it came time to harvest a few dozen acres. The logged trees enjoyed a second life as paper and cardboard and 2x4s and flooring, among hundreds of other uses, and many Wisconsin residents received paychecks as employees of those businesses. The farmers got a break on their taxes by keeping the forested parcels in the state's forest tax law programs, which require periodic harvests.

By 1997, though Wisconsin hadn't gained any more land, the number of private woodland owners had doubled – to about 260,000 – while the median size of those tracts had shrunk to about 55 acres. By 2010, that median parcel size could drop to 35 acres. If we cared only about deer and squirrels, those smaller parcel sizes wouldn't be cause for alarm. And if we could recycle wood endlessly and efficiently, cutting fewer trees wouldn't matter, either. But the real world isn't so simple.

It's kind of like baking a batch of brownies and opting to divide the pan into a few big pieces, instead of 24 tiny squares. Less interior area is exposed with bigger blocks of land, and even if some squares are eaten, many big ones still touch each other. If those larger brownies were the Wisconsin landscape, birds and mammals that need more contiguous territory could still survive. But once that landscape is sundered into bite-size bits, those critters lose ground to the species that best adapt: Deer. Squirrels. Raccoons. Cowbirds. Garlic mustard. Buckthorn.

All the while the cornucopia of animal and plant species our country once boasted is being diminished.

In the Baraboo Bluffs of Sauk County, some species are at risk as the forest is chopped into ever-smaller parcels. Many private landowners in the area are working with Sauk County, the DNR and The Nature Conservancy to hold the big woods together. You won't see scarlet tanagers in woodlots split by houses and driveways, but they can be found in older oak forests in and around the bluffs. So can Acadian flycatchers, hooded warblers, box turtles, and many kinds of amphibians.

Public forests clearly maintain forest health. Private ones can too, given our support. And when we do, everyone benefits.

In rural Dane County, one man keeping the encroaching city of Madison at bay is so determined to maintain his privacy that he won't even let his name be printed. "George," a retired surgeon, traveled the width and breadth of the United States almost two decades ago before settling on a 30-year-old house on wooded land in the Town of Middleton, just west of Madison. "I thought I was moving too far out of town. Guess what? The town caught up with me," he says.

Now, with a subdivision he describes as "hideous" just over the hill, George is thankful he persuaded a friend to sell him 20 more acres of woods a couple of years ago. The parcel provides a bit of rural charm to an urbanizing area and acts as a buffer against future development. That tract, enrolled in the state's managed forest program, has been selectively logged and will continue to grow trees and harbor wildlife, including Ralph, the rattlesnake that visited in 1997, and a lovely king snake that appeared last summer.

In Sauk County, Sharlotte Coller went out of her way to keep a large stand of woods intact and even found a way to marry it to a parcel next door. She started in 1972 with a look homeward from across the ocean.

Sharlotte Coller. © Robert Queen
Sharlotte Coller. © Robert Queen

She'd been working overseas as a government nurse. One day, she and several co-workers mused about what would happen if they were killed in the line of duty. One person said she'd ask to have her flag-draped coffin sent home. And Coller realized that she had no place she called home. "I was sort of feeling rootless," she says.

She called her mother in the rural Baraboo area, gave her power of attorney and instructions on what kind of land to buy, and by September she was the owner of her first 240 acres, an abandoned farmstead in the Baraboo Bluffs. Twice more she bought land, in 1976 and 1990. Now her holdings total 330 acres, and best of all, they all touch each other. "It's all contiguous, and I'm determined to keep it that way," she says. "Fragmented habitat is never as valuable as pieces all connected."

One edge borders another large, undisturbed piece. "So the animals have about 600 undisturbed acres," she says.

"My goal is to preserve it and leave it, if possible, in better shape than I got it," Coller says.

Some of her efforts are less about doing something than about leaving the land alone to recover naturally from what some might call the misguided attempts of the past. That's true for one moist nine-acre parcel that had been drained of its water and farmed. The tiles now are broken, and Coller prefers them that way. "I keep hoping a sandhill crane will decide to rest there someday," she says.

It's meaningful work, she says. "I like to at least pretend that I favor the Native American attitude about land – that we don't really own it, we just take care of it. And then it will, in turn, take care of us."

Sharlotte is now thinking about legal means to ensure that her land will never be developed. On the fringes of Madison, George has the same idea, planning eventually to give his woods and house to The Nature Conservancy. That union would produce an impressive dowry, as the whole 30-acre tract was recently assessed for just under five million dollars. "But that was for the 'best use' value," George says, chuckling, amused at the thought. "That's for development. And that ain't gonna happen."

Wildlife in and on woodlands

Enhancing private wooded acres for wildlife and plants provides valuable habitat for a host of species – and a few surprises for the hosts themselves.

Onviting wildlife into your life has a price, it seems. But it's a price Loretta Becker appears willing to pay.

Becker, who with her late husband Bernard was Wisconsin Tree Farmer of the Year in 1986, built her house in 1979 on the fringe of a forty in Barron County that had been owned by her grandfather in 1899. It's part of about 335 acres they own in the county. The land is well stocked with oak, maple and ash, and trees are harvested periodically.

Some of the harvests are done to improve habitat for specific wildlife species. Other areas have been left alone, even around the house. There, islands of prairie flowers attract scores of chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and hummingbirds. And also, somewhat unfortunately, woodpeckers, who seem not to appreciate that Becker's cedar-sided house is no longer a living tree.

The siding is riddled with their holes. "I go pound on the wall, and they'll go away for a little bit, then they come back," Becker says, sighing. She figures her best bet is covering the cedar with vinyl, which she is in the process of doing. But her home in the woods proved its worth only recently, she says: "I was standing talking on the telephone, and a bald eagle flew right over the house."

Ponds have been dug on Becker's land, as they have on 57 acres in Juneau County owned by Grace and Maury White of Madison. A place formerly occupied by a watering tank turned out to have a spring nearby. A neighbor told the Whites, and they later dug it out with a backhoe.

"To have water on woodlands is real special," says Grace. "Whatever's on the land that wants a drink, can find it." That includes deer, raccoons, wood ducks and foxes, according to the tracks the Whites have seen.

The Whites also planted an 8,000-square-foot prairie aside the forest in 1993, and birds have flocked to the site. Bluebirds, orioles, finches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and one she can't name: "a gorgeous, gorgeous, deep blue bird." "It's good for the birds," Grace says. "It's really good for us."

The federal Stewardship Incentive Program helped the Whites, who also own a tree farm in Washburn County, pay for some of their efforts to go beyond agriculture and timber production. "It's really much better, because you are thinking about more than growing trees," Grace says.

Grace has been thinking about more than trees for some time now. She's been captivated by the yellow lady's slipper, a type of orchid listed as "uncommon" in the Falcon Field Guide to Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers, but often seen at the White's Juneau County farm.

Woodlands provide habitat for species familiar and rare.

© R.J and Linda Miller
Woolands provide habitat for species familiar and rare. © R.J and Linda Miller

The couple already had deliberately begun to create one new prairie on 8,000-square-feet of former alfalfa and corn fields near the woods, working with private consultant Joyce Powers of Prairie Ridge Nursery in Mount Horeb. But one year, the Whites realized that the little patch they'd found of the flowers with the inflated yellow sacs had nothing to do with any recent efforts. The flowers were in a woodland opening near the new prairie, and the Whites decided to encourage them. They snipped out competing plants such as Queen Anne's Lace and several kinds of clover, and built a fence to keep out marauding deer. "Last year, on that little plot, we had over 100 orchids in bloom at one time," Grace White says.

She added that people just seem to know those flowers are special. One summer, when Maury was a patient at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. she stopped at the land and picked a single yellow orchid she hoped would cheer him up. But passersby on the Rochester streets just glared at her. "I never did that again!" she says, chuckling.

In a separate half-acre scattering of oaks, the Whites also discovered many other original prairie plants: pasqueflower, leadplant, bird's foot violet, and many types of native grasses.

In nearby woods amidst a stand of Norway pines, they located small numbers of trailing arbutus, with its fragrant pink flowers and evergreen leaves. The same plants were found on another six acres the Whites own in Vilas County.

Over in Sauk County, Sharlotte Coller and local forester Fred Clark have been nurturing another rare species, the prickly pear cactus, high up in the thin, sandy soils of the Baraboo Bluffs off Highway 33. After fire suppression became part of our modern ethos, the cacti gave way to cedar, which Coller and Clark are now cutting out with the help of a federal habitat restoration program. Old aerial photographs from the 1930s show only a few cedars, she says. Their goal is to create the right conditions for the now-dormant prickly pears to grow again in profusion. Many naturalists have visited the site to see the work in progress and document the effort.