Loggers Face Massive Cleanup Job from Wisconsin Storm

Publish Date: 
September 14, 2011

By Joe Taschler of the Journal Sentinel

Large tracts of land in northwestern Wisconsin are covered in downed trees, the result of a severe thunderstorm in July. Winds in some areas topped 100 mph.

(Stacy Hopke / Burnett County Sheriff’s Office)
 

During nearly 50 years in the logging business, Max Ericson has seen trees - lots of them - blown down by the wind. What took place this summer in parts of Wisconsin's North Woods, though, shocked him.

"I've never seen our forests so devastated as they are now," said Ericson, owner of Ericson Logging in Minong. "It's going to impact the timber industry for a least a couple generations."

Across a swath of northwestern Wisconsin, an estimated 2 million cords of wood - $160 million worth by one estimate - are on the ground, blown down during a severe thunderstorm in July.

"We've had blow-downs before, just nothing this size," said Henry Schienebeck, a third-generation logger and executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association in Rhinelander.

The amount of wood on the ground is about what the state's loggers usually cut in a year, Schienebeck said.

"If a tornado hits, a tornado is a half-mile to a mile wide and two to three miles long," Ericson said. "Then it lifts and it's done.

"This went on for miles."

The huge number of trees in northern Wisconsin makes the region vulnerable to severe thunderstorm winds, and timber blow-downs occur often in the area.

"But not to this degree," said Rick Hluchan, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Duluth, Minn., which provides forecast coverage for northwestern Wisconsin. "It's been awhile since we've had winds this bad."

Weather Service meteorologists used a combination of radar images and damage surveys done from the air and on the ground to determine that wind gusts in the storm were greater than 100 mph.

One person was killed and 39 others were injured in the storm.

National Guard called in
In Wisconsin, anything that affects timber is a big deal. The industry employs more than 56,500 people in the state when you add up forestry, logging, wood products, pulp and paper jobs, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Forest & Paper Association. Total value of products produced in the state is $16.2 billion, the organization says.

On Aug. 24, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in Burnett, Douglas and Washburn counties and ordered state agencies to help clear the downed timber.

Members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 724th Engineer Battalion are set to deploy for the rest of this month to Burnett and Douglas counties to help remove debris left by the storms. The deployment begins Friday, the governor's office said.

The state Department of Natural Resources is estimating that 130,000 acres are affected. Of that, 65% is privately owned, said Robert Manwell, deputy spokesman for the agency. Burnett County was hardest hit, with nearly 81,000 acres affected, he said.

The DNR has established a special website to provide information to landowners about clearing their land of debris left by the storm.

The potential economic impact from the widespread damage is tough to measure, loggers say.

"There's a lot of value in those trees and that forestland," said Bill Johnson, president of Johnson Timber in Hayward. "A lot of folks lost value in their property."

In addition to the three counties where the state of emergency was declared, damage also occurred in Ashland, Bayfield and Polk counties, the DNR says.

Market awash in wood
The damage is spread across species. The greatest damage occurred to aspen, red and jack pine, and oak, according to the DNR.

As the cleanup continues, concerns are being voiced about the financial impact a huge volume of timber hitting the market might have.

In addition, there are at least as many acres of downed timber across the border in Minnesota, loggers say.

"That's the struggle everybody is fighting with," Johnson said. "The industry is one big balancing act - keeping the logging infrastructure in place, keeping the wood supply sustainable and keeping the mills profitable.

"Sometimes that's a tough act to juggle."

For now, mills are accepting as much lumber as the loggers can cut.

But clearing all the downed timber is not as simple as going in and using machinery to selectively thin a forest. It takes more time - making it more expensive - to harvest blown-down timber.

"When it's lying on the ground, the value is just not as high as when it's standing timber," Schienebeck said.

What's more, logging in tangled, blown-down areas is often dangerous, especially when areas must be cut by hand.

"Other trees might be on top of the tree. It could be hung up in other trees," said Roger Scalzo, a contract logger based in Spooner. "To try to hand-cut that stuff is about the most dangerous thing you can do."

Fires and insects also have the DNR concerned. Both have the potential to devastate huge areas.

"This downed wood in the spring will represent a tremendous fire hazard," Manwell said. "A lot of it is conifer - soft wood that burns very readily. And this area is mixed with a lot of residences - second homes, resort homes, primary homes.

"That represents some real potential property loss there if a big fire should get going."

Another concern is insect infestation that could spread to the healthy timber on the edges of the blow-down areas.

A long, slow recovery
Even for fast-growing trees, it will be decades before some areas recover.

"It's really disrupted the forest management plans," Schienebeck said. "In spots that were leveled, they are basically starting over now."

"We've got trees that blew down that were 10 or 15 years away from being mature," Ericson said. "Then you've got wood that was 30 years from being mature."

Mature trees were clobbered, too.

"That storm blew down 200-year-old white pines," Ericson said. "I was cutting up white pine that was three feet (in diameter)."

In other cases, blown-down trees had reached their maximum life expectancy, making them susceptible to wind damage, said Neil Ambourn, a Webster forester who consults with private landowners.

The wind was nature's way of clearing the forest of old, weak timber.

Even though things are a mess now, the forests will come back.

"These forests are resilient and sustainable," Ambourn said. "Most are going to regenerate naturally."

That means fewer of the tall, stately North Woods forests, though.

"We're going to have a lot of young forests," Ambourn said.

"Aesthetically, we may not like those forests. But they are healthy and sustainable and making forest products for future generations," he said.

"Environmentally, it's not catastrophic."

***How much wood
Here are a few ways to look at the amount of timber blown down in storms this summer:

 If you cut and stacked the logs on 40-foot logging trailers and included the trucks to haul them, they would stretch 1,700 miles, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. That's about the distance from Milwaukee to Las Vegas.

 An acre is roughly the size of a football field. The DNR says 130,000 acres of timber sustained damage.

 A cord is unit of measure for loose, stacked wood equal to 128 cubic feet - or a stack 4 feet high and 8 feet wide with wood pieces that are 4 feet long, according to the University of Wisconsin Extension. Estimates say there are about 2 million cords of wood on the ground in areas of northwestern Wisconsin
 

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