WOODRUFF - Loggers will soon get more access to 17,000 additional acres of land in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
The state-mandated change has timber industry groups excited, but some wildlife advocates are worried.
Under the state budget passed by Republicans in 2015, the Northern Highland-American Legion and five other state forests must increase their amount of land designated as forest production areas. The primary use of these areas is to sustainably generate timber for sale. In the six state forests, lawmakers mandated that the total amount of land labeled as forest production area must increase from 66 to 75 percent.
"The [loggers] would kind of like to have more options," said Henry Schienebeck, the executive director of the Rhinelander-based Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association. "We're looking for affordable raw materials, obviously, to keep our industry vibrant."
Some land is still classified for uses such as recreation or environmental protection. But within its own borders, NHAL plans to increase its forest production area percentage from 71 to 79.
"I think it gives more options on the land," Schienebeck said. "It probably gives a little better return on the investment."
"That's no problem," said Ron Eckstein of the new 75 percent number.
Eckstein is a former DNR employee and the current Forestry Issues Committee chairman for the Wildlife Society's Wisconsin chapter. He doesn't have an issue with the new 75 percent forest production area threshold. But Eckstein is concerned about another phrase in the new law.
That wording says that forest production areas will "maximize timber production…while using accepted silvicultural practices."
"A big part of the concern is, what does 'maximize timber production' mean?" Eckstein wonders. "It could mean that's an industrial forest-type approach where you really don't account much for wildlife habitat and aesthetics and water quality."
Wildlife habitat is among Eckstein's chief concerns.
"We have in the Northwoods 350 species of terrestrial vertebrates, birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians, that rely on upland forests for their habitat."
Schienebeck understands that the idea of "maximizing" timber production might make some people a bit nervous.
"Maybe that's just not a good word to have in there," he said. "Maybe it just sounds kind of alarming."
But in changing how our state forests are used, Schienebeck and Eckstein seem to agree on one thing.
"The definition for managing public forests in the public interest should be a balanced approach," Eckstein said.
The DNR hosted a public meeting on the proposed forest production area increase on Wednesday night in Woodruff.
The recommendations will next go to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp for final approval.