Wisconsin's state forests to see more timber cutting

Wisconsin officials are earmarking nearly 40,000 more acres of state forestland for intensive logging -- a move pushed by the Legislature to provide a fresh source of timber to the forest products industry. But opponents, which see the change as ...

Norway pine logs. (2006 file / News Tribune)

Wisconsin officials are earmarking nearly 40,000 more acres of state forestland for intensive logging - a move pushed by the Legislature to provide a fresh source of timber to the forest products industry.

But opponents, which see the change as a major shift in the management of public forests, question the need for such action and are worried about the potential ecological harm that could come from more logging.

They also criticized lawmakers for limiting public involvement in the process, including the role of the citizen-led Natural Resources Board to review changes in how timber is harvested in state forests.

In 2015, lawmakers working on the state budget directed the DNR to increase acreage eligible for the most intensive timber cutting to 75 percent of northern state forests. That's up from the current level of 66 percent.

The change means that about 39,000 acres in newly reclassified timber stands will be subject to a generally more aggressive cycle of logging. Some forestland will be cut starting next year; trees on other parcels will be scheduled for harvest in future years.


Timber sales from all DNR-managed land in 2014 and 2015 totaled more than $11 million in each year, DNR figures show.

The Northern Highland American Legion and Brule River state forests will experience the biggest shift, according to DNR documents. The Black River and Flambeau River state forests also will see an increase.

Northern Highland is Wisconsin's largest state forest, covering more than 232,000 acres.

The new policy calls for more than 17,000 acres on Northern Highland to be re-designated as a "forest production management area" - a classification generally subject to the most intensive cycles of harvests. Other categories of forestland are also logged, but often not as frequently.

The change means more than 183,000 acres would be in forest production management.

The Brule River forest in Douglas County is the home of all 44 miles of the Bois Blue River, which flows into Lake Superior. One of the state's most prized rivers, it has been fished by five American presidents.

On the Brule, forest production management would jump by more than 14,000 acres to more than 25,000 acres in the 46,767-acre forest.

"The problem is the land is being managed for industry first," said Bob Banks, whose family has owned property on the Bois Brule since 1887 and whose chief worry is that the new practice will have an unintended effect on the water quality of the river. "That's our concern," he said. "It doesn't seem to be managed for a watershed."


"We felt there should be more options"

Wisconsin's forest products industry, including sawmills and paper manufacturers, has been pressing lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Scott Walker to free up more land for timber harvest for years, arguing that a larger wood supply makes for a more robust forest products infrastructure.

The forest industry - a major force in the Wisconsin economy and responsible for 64,000 jobs - plays an integral role in northern economies. It is the top employer in 10 counties, according to DNR figures.

"Industry felt this was a good thing," said Henry Schienebeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association. "We felt there should be more options available from our state forests."

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, co-sponsor of the forestry measure, predicted the overall effect on the landscape would be minimal. In some instances, increased logging would benefit some species. Two examples: Ruffed grouse and the golden-winged warbler, which breeds in young stands of aspen.

"It's not only going to better for the economy. It's going to be better for wildlife and habitat," he said.

The DNR made public documents and maps last month outlining properties targeted for a new designation. Since then, the DNR has held meetings in Woodruff and Brule and made staff available in Black River Falls and Winter.

Conservation groups have so far found little fault with the DNR's efforts to find the most suitable land to satisfy the law.


But while those interviewed all said the state needs a robust forestry industry, they said the change from 66 percent to 75 percent for intensive cutting seemed arbitrary.

"It's the unique aspect of the north woods that are being whittled down," said Matt Dallman of the Nature Conservancy.

Another concern: Wording in the law requires the DNR to "maximize timber production" in designated areas.

"To me, this is a big thing," said Ron Eckstein, a retired DNR wildlife biologist who spent 34 years at the agency as a specialist in forest ecology and raptor management.

His worry: Will logging be allowed along trails and lakeshores? Can forest openings that attract wildlife stay intact? Will trees be cut near shaded woodland ponds?

Eckstein, who represents the Wisconsin chapter of the Wildlife Society, said the emphasis on maximum production could pose problems for some wildlife such as nesting eagles and goshawks if older tree populations are lost.

"Now, you might have foresters looking at the law and saying we can't have that anymore," Eckstein said.

In some cases, prized trees would need to be cut to meet requirements in the law, acknowledged Carmen Hardin, bureau director of forest management for the DNR.


But to strike a balance and to avoid harming the most vulnerable resources, Hardin said DNR foresters teamed up with specialists in wildlife management, endangered species and other disciplines.

Remnants of virgin, old-growth forests won't be touched, she said. No state natural areas will be logged. Cutting will still follow accepted forest management practices. A third-party certification program is in place to audit harvests.

"This is not the way to make law"

While conservationists said it appeared the DNR kept intensive cutting away from prized areas, they criticized the political process.

Tiffany and co-sponsor Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma, inserted the forest measure into the budget in May 2015 without advance notice. Democrats on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee objected to the changes.

"This is not the way to make law," Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, told members of the committee.

The Nature Conservancy's Dallman, who manages the organization's northern Wisconsin operations, said forest planning traditionally has relied on extensive public comment.

But the new law was devised in ways that de-emphasized public input, critics said. Lawmakers specified the move to 75 percent of forests subject to intensive cutting was not an amendment, but a variance in the law. The wording, the critics said, cut out a more formalized public participation process. The change also does not require the seven-member, policy-setting Natural Resources Board to approve the changes.


"What we have is a major change in forest policy, and there is little public involvement in the process," Dallman said. "It's like 'here it is and thanks for your attendance.' There is not a lot we can do."

The DNR said it would take public comment until Nov. 21, and Hardin said the agency could make changes afterward.

Tiffany countered that he pushed for changes because of public feedback he was hearing. He chose legislation because he didn't believe the DNR would act on its own.

"I wanted to make the change statutorily," Tiffany said. "I did not believe it was going to get done administratively. I thought it was a very important change for northern Wisconsin."

Brule River State Forest (File / Wisconsin Deptment of Natural Resources)

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