Stewardship Could Hold the Key to Boosting State’s Timber Industry

forestry-cheq-nicolet-signTake a drive down just about any highway in northern Wisconsin and you’ll see mile after mile after mile of majestic trees as far as the eye can see. And depending on where you’re driving, much of the wooded landscape you’ll enjoy is part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a sprawling patchwork of trees, lakes, rivers and other natural amenities that covers 1.5 million acres in 11 counties.

Wisconsin’s only national forest not only serves as a scenic destination for hikers, campers, hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts; it also plays a vital role in the economy of northern Wisconsin. Every year, millions of cubic feet of sawlogs and pulpwood are harvested in the forest by local loggers and taken to nearby saw mills, pulp mills and other forest industry companies to be processed.

However, there are still tens of millions of cubic feet of harvestable timber that remains, primarily because the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lacks the funds and staffing to administer more sales. Over the last few years, the amount of harvestable timber “on the shelf” in the national forest has grown to about 350 million board feet. Finding a way to successfully harvest that timber could create and retain hundreds of timber-related jobs in the region, and would have an economic impact of nearly $200 million.

In an effort to harvest more timber from the forest, a committee representing 10 associations, organizations and agencies has teamed up to develop a plan to use the USFS’s existing stewardship authority to create local contracts for harvesting and marking timber, road construction, culvert replacements and creating wildlife habitat in the forest. Under the stewardship authority, the timber sale income pays for the service projects.

After more than a year of work, a 10-year master stewardship agreement was reached between the Forest Service and Sustainable Resources Institute Inc. last spring, and the first deal for timber sale under the stewardship program—for 2.35 million board feet—was reached in November. A second agreement is expected in the third quarter of 2015.

The initiative calls for sustainably harvesting timber in an environmentally friendly manner to help maintain and improve wildlife habitat, protect water quality, lessen the risk of forest fires and otherwise help improve the health of the forest.

Those involved in the stewardship initiative say it could ultimately have a major economic and social impact on the region.

“From our perspective, there’s no other entity or item that could make or break our county economically more than the management of that forest,” says David Ziolkowski, the county forester in Forest County, where 51 percent of the total land is within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. “The economy of our county historically is based on tourism and the logging industry, so we’re highly dependent on it. The residents of Forest County treat the national forest like it’s their backyard. They hunt, they fish, they have great respect for the forest, and they would like to see it managed correctly.”

Jane Severt, executive director of the Wisconsin County Forests Association, says not being able to harvest all the wood in national forest has hurt the local economy and its residents. For example, in the small village of Butternut in Ashland County, “every saw mill that used to operate there is gone,” she explained.

“It’s very hard on the local communities because there’s a whole culture that has been developed there because of the forest,” says Severt. “People chose to live and work there, and they’ve had good lives there because of the forest. And as the harvest numbers go down, the people move away. The young people can’t stay and work there and make a good living. It just has a really big social and cultural impact on those communities—beyond the economic impact.”

Using the stewardship program in the national forest will not only increase employment in timber harvesting, but will also increase the supply of wood to Wisconsin forest industry companies.

“Supply is always an issue for the industry,” explains Don Peterson, executive director of the Sustainable Resources Institute Inc., which received a grant from WEDC to implement the stewardship initiative. “They need a constant, ongoing supply of raw material, and the industry in Wisconsin is very diverse, so there’s a need for different products. If there isn’t sustainable wood coming out of the national forest, it adversely affects these industries and the counties they are located in and/or procure wood from.”

“WEDC was instrumental in the development of the stewardship agreement and provided the resources to fund it—again demonstrating the key value in the design and delivery of industry-driven, sector-specific solutions that power regional and statewide prosperity in driver industries,” says Lee Swindall, WEDC vice president of business and industry development. “Those efforts will produce both immediate and long-term positive economic impacts in the industry and the region, and the model developed here can be repeated in other parts of the state to produce similar outcomes.”

(January 2015)