A century after lumber barons cut down 1.5 million acres of timberlands now protected within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to help build Milwaukee and Chicago, industry managers say the riches within the regrown forest are being squandered at taxpayers' expense.
A long-brewing battle pits cash-strapped loggers and mill owners against environmentalists and a growing woodland-recreation industry, Gannett Wisconsin Media reported Saturday.
Residents of Laona, a town of 1,200 people about 100 miles northwest of Green Bay, say the industry's struggles have contributed to skyrocketing tax bills, empty classrooms and shuttered shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, loggers who remain in the business often travel hours each day to saw down private timber stands while the national forest remains off-limits to them.
"I feel like we have a family starving to death surrounded by an ocean of food and water," said Jim Schuessler, head of Forest County's economic development agency. State figures show forestry jobs in the county dropped from nearly 700 in 2008 to just 118 in 2010, partly as a result of the housing crash.
Schuessler said the region is hamstrung by overly restrictive harvest limits within the national forest.
Records show the U.S. Forest Service could have sold and cut 1.3 billion board feet of wood in the past decade under its forest management plan. That would have represented roughly $110 million in revenue. But loggers cut just 755 million board feet, or a little more than half the allowed quantity.
Forest supervisor Paul Strong points out that the Chequamegon-Nicolet serves multiple purposes. He acknowledged that the forest has fallen way short of its maximum cutting levels. He said that's due to a lack of money for federal staff to survey land, propose plans, get environmental reviews and mark trees before private loggers harvest them.
"There's no forest in the system across the United States that cuts at their allowable sale quantity. Our annual budget for the agency simply doesn't allow it," Strong said.
While the sight of huge old trees collapsing under their own weight with every windstorm is horrifying for loggers, that landscape is exciting for ecologists such as Don Waller, botany professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Those darker, mature stands are some of the last graphs of habitat for woodpeckers and other wildlife that den in the rotting trees," Waller said. "People who use the term 'overmature' look at it purely based on economic value —but we should be concerned with a wider set of values."
The priority has swung in favor of tourism and environmental appreciation, Waller said.
"We've seen the expansion of recreation opportunities so broadly that I think the area is transforming its economic base," Waller said. "Logging and timber production will continue to play a major role, but the jobs will continue to reduce, and that's not due to environmental protest."