"Exceptionally wet" year keeping loggers from getting wood to mills Submitted: 09/27/2016
TOWN OF LITTLE RICE - Dennis Schoeneck's pickup truck sloshes through muddy logging roads these days.  But he'd prefer it if a much larger truck could even make it down the path.

"Heck, I think you could spit and make mud here," the Enterprise Forest Products owner said Tuesday morning.

Foot-deep ruts make up most of the logging road leading back to 23 acres of private land the long-time logger harvests in the western Oneida County town of Little Rice.  Schoeneck started logging professionally in 1979 and says 2016 has been "exceptionally wet" compared to any other year.

"The old adage, make hay while the sun shines, that's not just for farmers," Schoeneck said.  "That's for us too."

The summer of 2016 provided a lot more rain than sun for loggers like Schoeneck. He has about 40 to 50 truckloads of wood cut and just sitting. But logging trucks loaded with wood weigh too much to navigate the roads, which means all those logs -- and sometimes workers -- can only wait for dryer conditions.

"When [my workers] ask, 'What are we going to do tomorrow?' And I say, 'I don't know.' I've never remembered saying that this many times," Schoeneck said.

Getting machinery like harvesters into the woods to actually cut timber isn't necessarily the hard part. The challenge comes from getting what's cut back out of the woods. Schoeneck knows he doesn't get paid until the wood goes to the mills.

The impact stretches beyond Schoeneck's pocketbook. Timber haulers lose time and money waiting for roads to dry up. Meanwhile, mills and plants that turn wood into paper products find themselves searching for other sources.

Mills like Kretz Lumber in Antigo are feeling that pinch.

"If we could move enough product, our yard would be a lot fuller," Kretz Head Forester Al Koeppel said.

Kretz Lumber likes to keep an extra four weeks of wood it can cut on hand. But because loggers can't get them supplies, Koeppel says his company is down to about half of that.

"It's not like we can go to a warehouse and just pick up whatever product we want or grocery store and put it in our shopping cart and we're good to go," Koeppel said. "All of this has to come out of the woods."

Loggers on county-owned land face similar challenges. Wisconsin County Forests Association Executive Director Jane Severt says fall is usually when counties start to get more receipts from land sales in. But timber producers often don't pay for those sales until they're able to get wood to mills and get paid themselves.

The wet weather means many counties shut down logging operations to keep the roads from getting torn up.

"You want to see them be able to work but we can't really allow damage to occur within the forest either," Severt said.

Severt expects to see loggers asking for contract extensions on county-owned stands. That would give them a better chance to make a profit before paying what's owed.

To keep its supply up, Kretz does buy wood from other loggers across the state and Upper Peninsula, but transportation costs add up. Koeppel says it reaches a point where mills can't make a profit.

"If everybody out there prays for sunshine for a month or two, I'd be real happy with that." Koeppel said.

Until that sun comes, Dennis Schoeneck will keep cutting -- and waiting -- perhaps until his favorite harvest season of winter rolls around.

"It could be 10-below-zero tomorrow and I'd be fine with that," Schoeneck said with a laugh.

Schoeneck says he spends time lost in the woods by doing maintenance and searching for timber sales at home. But he adds the slim profit Enterprise Forest Products made this year has basically disappeared due to the weather.

Story By: Lane Kimble

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