Wisconsin’s century-old model of forestry comes under pressure

For more than a century, family-supporting jobs have grown on trees in Wisconsin.

Not a smattering of jobs, but the most private-sector jobs the state has ever known: jobs in logging, lumber, furniture making, pulping, papermaking and the printing presses for the nation’s books, magazines and catalogs. If employment linked to forest products represented a single sector, Wisconsin would have the largest in the nation.

Long before scientists determined that a stand of carbon-sponging trees is the best known bulwark against global warming, Wisconsin had invented an economic ecosystem that reforested the state after it had been clear-cut from south to north by timber barons a century earlier. Even today, 84,177 jobs in the state rely on timberland.

But during the past decade, Wisconsin’s business-driven model of renewable forestry, along with the methodical replanting and regeneration that fueled it, has begun to unravel on multiple fronts:

*As the nation’s leading papermaking state, Wisconsin feels the disruption caused by digital media acutely. The state’s ink-on-paper economy has been shrinking for over a decade — pulpwood is the largest volume consumer of Wisconsin-grown timber — while the 2008 housing meltdown was so severe that sawmills and lumber works have yet to fully recover.
*Family-owned woodland, which accounts for more than half of the state’s forests, is being inherited by a generation that is less inclined to maintain the land as “working” forests — those that feed paper mills and saw mills — and more inclined to sell it off piecemeal.
*Wall Street investors have been buying up forestland in Wisconsin and other states, then parceling it and flipping it. Some of the land becomes subdivisions and golf courses, and some is held by investment funds that sell it in far less time than it takes a tree to reach harvesting maturity.
*The globalization of the economy since the 1990s has increased competition from warmer climates such as South America and southern Asia, which can grow pulpwood more efficiently than Wisconsin, where brutal winters annually interrupt growth cycles.

“You can buy a barge full of pulp from a pulp mill in Brazil and ship it to a paper mill in Wisconsin more cheaply than a pulp mill in Wisconsin can produce it from a timberland 20 miles away,” said Al Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, a nonprofit forestry research organization in Washington, D.C.

The American share of pulpwood and timber exports in international markets “has declined since the 1990s” and isn’t expected to recover as paper and printing production shifts to China, according to a report this year from the U.S. Forest Service.

The economic, environmental and recreational implications of all the changes are still working themselves out.

There so far has been no dramatic falloff in Wisconsin’s timberland, for instance: After decades of expansion, forests now cover nearly half the state’s 35.5 million acres — 17.1 million acres, larger than the state of West Virginia. But the trend appears to have plateaued, and some economists expect the acreage covered by trees to begin receding, barring another shift in the economic fundamentals.

“This is a quiet revolution,” Sample said. “There isn’t an economist, in Wisconsin or anywhere, who can tell you with any certainty what that landscape will look like when the dust settles.”

The economic shifts remain invisible to those who can drive for hours in northern Wisconsin and see nothing but evergreens and fiery fall foliage at this time of year. Timber stacked on flatbed trucks and freight trains remain a common sight.

But the jobs that sustain the woodland communities are disappearing. Since 2001, employment in logging, pulp, paper, printing and all forms of lumber and furniture has fallen by a third, a loss of more than 41,000 jobs.

The sparsely populated counties of northern Wisconsin bear the state’s highest rates of unemployment. Their tree-based economy also helps explain why Wisconsin perennially ranks as a slow-growth state for overall job creation.

“The industry, not to use a pun, is deeply rooted in our state history. It’s a huge part of the economy in northern Wisconsin, where there’s nothing waiting in the wings to replace it,” said Thomas Hittle, an executive at Steigerwaldt Land Services Inc., one of the biggest managers of private forestland in the Northwoods. “It’s on everybody’s mind up here.”

Wisconsinites also appear to be planting fewer trees.

The state’s three sprawling state-run tree nurseries, which routinely sold 20 million to 30 million native species plantings every year throughout much of the 20th century, barely sell 4 million a year today, a jarring drop that has occurred just within the past few years. The state Department of Natural Resources is shutting two of its three nurseries.

Asked to explain the plunging demand, DNR officials note that frequent ownership changes and subdivisions lead to forest fragmentation. Also, government subsidies for ethanol have prompted some landowners to switch to corn. “We’ve seen a lot of conversion from forest to agriculture,” said Carmen Hardin, chief of the DNR’s forestry science section.

The decline hasn’t shown up yet in the total forestry cover, which has held steady in recent years. But experts at the DNR suspect it will become evident soon.

“My suspicion is that we’ll be flat or declining over the next few years,” said DNR analyst Andy Stoltman.

Private-sector tree nurseries in Canada also have intruded on some of the DNR’s market. Plus, with Wisconsin coming off a centurylong reforestation success story, the state might have replanted to its limits.
more at: http://www.jsonline.com/business/wisconsins-century-old-model-of-forestry-comes-under-pressure-b99609233z1-342717522.html

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