Mar. 29, 2006 – To most people, the North Woods of Wisconsin might not be as breath-taking as Yosemite or Yellowstone. Their significant plant and animal species â€“ like the goblin fern, American ginseng, the goshawk and the pine marten â€“ arenâ€™t all that glamorous.
"If you werenâ€™t looking for them you might not even see them," said University of Wisconsin botany professor Don Waller.
But the North Woods are a unique and diverse ecosystem which holds some of the only remaining swaths of old-growth trees in the Midwest and provides a connection to nature for thousands of people in the region. Now, local ecologists say the future of the North Woods is uncertain, as the US Forest Service is proposing increased logging, timber sales and road building. The efforts follow the aims of the Bush administrationâ€™s so-called Healthy Forests initiative, which calls for increased logging as a means of fire control and forest management.
The North Woods are already the fifth most-heavily logged National Forest in the country and the most-heavily logged in the eastern half of the United States, according to the US Forest Service, which owns much of the North Woods area.
Waller said the area is now on the path to slowly recovering from heavy logging in the 1800s that depleted most of the old-growth forest, and he wants to see that trend continue.
"This area is gaining in biological value right now," he told The NewStandard. "We have a resurgence. We have gray wolves coming back down from the Upper Peninsula [of Michigan]. Weâ€™re beginning to hear of sightings of cougar. Weâ€™re seeing the recovery of bird species. Will this recovery be able to continue?"
The area is now on the path to slowly recovering from heavy logging in the 1800s that depleted most of the old-growth forest.
It might not if Forest Service logging plans go through.
In 2001, the Forest Service proposed six new logging sales covering about 40,000 acres of this forest. The proposed logging would include both selective logging and clear cutting as well as the construction or reconstruction of more than 100 miles of roads in the forest.
Last year a federal district judge blocked logging on three of the proposed timber sales covering 22,000 acres in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest of the North Woods, in response to lawsuits filed by the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and the Madison-based Habitat Education Center. ELPC also negotiated with the Forest Service on one of the other proposed sales and won an agreement to restrict logging to a smaller area than originally planned.
In the three lawsuits, the plaintiffs argued that the Forest Service had not adequately addressed the cumulative environmental impact of the overall effect of all six proposed sales, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but rather addressed each proposal narrowly. They also charged that the sales would violate both the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Ecologists who oppose increased logging argue that it risks eliminating some sensitive species from the area and changing the make-up of the forest in subtle but ecologically important and long-lasting ways.
"Our primary contention is the Forest Service wasnâ€™t really looking at the forest for the trees," ELPC attorney Howard Learner told The NewStandard. "They werenâ€™t looking at the overall impacts. For example theyâ€™d look at the impact of one sale on the red-shouldered hawk, but birds fly [outside one sale area]."
Milwaukee Federal District Judge Lynn Adelman told the Forest Service to come back with statements addressing the cumulative effects of any past, present and foreseeable logging. The Forest Service released revised environmental impact statements (EISs) in late January of this year. ELPC lawyers expressed displeasure with the revised proposals, saying the Forest Service had largely rehashed their previous EISs.
"They pretended to go through the motions here but used the same old process," Learner said. "They violated both the letter of the law and the spirit of the federal judgeâ€™s decision."
The Forest Service argues that increased logging in the North Woods can be part of healthy forest management practices, including weeding out non-native tree species.
But ecologists who oppose increased logging argue that it risks eliminating some sensitive species from the area and changing the make-up of the forest in subtle but ecologically important and long-lasting ways.
For example, Waller said the proposed thinning of the forest through selective logging will invite more deer, which could quickly wipe out sensitive plant species. A thinner forest canopy could also be devastating for native plants that require dampness and shade, like the Braunâ€™s Holly Fern.
Standing in the forest last fall among trees marked with blue paint for logging, Habitat Education Center President Ricardo Jomarron criticized the proposed timber sales. He told TNS that many yellow birches were marked for logging, even though the trees are favored as dens by the pine marten â€“ also called the American marten â€“ a type of weasel that lives in only two areas in Wisconsin. Pine martens need woody debris to block the snow so they can hunt voles in the winter. Destruction of this kind of debris, he said, would be one of the side effects of logging which is not catalogued in the environmental impact statement.
The Forest Serviceâ€™s environmental impact statement for the McCaslin sale, for example, does mention that martens residing in the timber-sale area could lose dens and foraging habitat, but it says the overall affect on the species would be "no impact" since habitats would continue to be available in the area. Similarly, the EIS catalogues the effect of the proposed sales on other species like the black-backed woodpecker, red-shouldered hawk, Canada lynx and the eastern timber wolf â€“ it lists "no impact" for almost all of them.
Gene Francisco, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Loggers Association and the Wisconsin Timber Producers Association industry groups, countered that responsible logging plays an important role on Forest Service land. He advocates selectively logging trees and using equipment that does not cause ruts in the forest floor or damage other plants unnecessarily, along with leaving a certain number of dead trees known as "snag" to provide animal habitats.
He said the logging planned for the national forest would follow these practices. "The Forest Service is always overly cautious because of all the pressure from environmentalists," he said. Faster-growing trees like the aspen might undergo clear cutting, he said, while slower-growing hardwoods would be thinned.
"Modern loggers are much more conservationist than at the turn of the century," said Francisco. "Forest ecosystems can grow and grow and get overcrowded. So you can use good forest science to help lead those trees into succession through commercial logging."
He cited the logging that has been done by the Menomonee Indian tribe in northeastern Wisconsin as a model example of sustainable logging.
"They started on one edge, used a method of thinning out so many acres per year until they got to the other side of the reservation, and then started over again," he said. "Theyâ€™ve been doing that for 150 years. They have large white pine and red pine and large hardwoods that are growing at a phenomenal rate because they are taking care of it the right way. Thatâ€™s sustainable forestry."
There is no assurance, however, that Franciscoâ€™s best-case logging strategy will be followed in the North Woods, especially since some of the timber sales are earmarked for clear-cutting.
Additionally, Waller noted that to casual observers, previously logged areas and selective logging plans might not appear so bad since the area continues to be tree-covered.
"But a lot of people are not sensitive to the difference between a 30-year-old aspen, an 80-year-old pine oak and a 150-year-old hemlock hardwood," he said.
Francisco, the industry advocate, said many of the members of the local industry associations he directs are second- or third-generation loggers. He said timber is key to the regionâ€™s economy, and jobs will be lost in harvesting, paper mills and other timber-related industry if logging is curtailed.
"Logging is very important for the economic vitality of our rural Wisconsin communities," he said.
Opponents counter that the government should focus more on promoting sustainable outdoors-based tourism and sports, which are already a major economic engine.
"Itâ€™s about a change in values between looking at Wisconsin as a timber-production entity versus having a more balanced view of the economy," said Learner. "People all over the Midwest come to the North Woods to go hunting or fishing or camping. In the 1800s and 1900s people saw this as a place to go cut timber. Now they see it is a place for outdoor recreation. Public values have shifted, but the Forest Service hasnâ€™t shifted."
The revenue from timber sales on federal land goes partly to surrounding communities for schools and infrastructure. National revenues from logging on federal land have fallen significantly, largely because of cutbacks in logging in the Pacific Northwest to protect endangered species.
In February, the Bush administration announced plans to sell off up to 300,000 acres of National Forest, much of it in California, to help offset the lower revenues from National Forest logging.
But Nicole Anzia, communications director of The Wilderness Society, said the price is not worth it. "These are national forest lands," she said. "A country as wealthy as ours shouldnâ€™t have to sell our national assets like this to fund our treasury."