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So many of us live in Wisconsin’s Northwoods or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because we love what surrounds us every day. We love the clear water, the clean air, and the lush forests. WXPR’s environmental reporting as part of our expanded series, The Stream, focuses on the natural world around us. The Stream is now about more than just water: it brings you stories of efforts to conserve our wild lands and lakes, scientific studies of animal and plant life, and potential threats to our environment. Hear The Stream on Thursdays on WXPR and access episodes any time online.

Conservationists renew push to protect old growth forests and stop Fourmile Project

Photograph of logging path in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
Andy Olsen, Environmental Law and Policy Center
Photograph of logging path in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

At the end of September, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, along with 28 allied organizations, released apetition letter to the U.S. Forest Service.

They want the agency to pause logging mature and old-growth trees in the Fourmile logging project in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

In the heart of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, there’s a deep blanket of rusty colored leaves carpeting the ground.

They swish and crunch underfoot.

Wind rustles through the thick canopy above me, decades old at this point.

“The entire Nicolet National Forest is one of the most heavy areas for concentrations of mature trees in the eastern United States. And so it's really important area for for protection."

That is Andy Olsen.

He’s a senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

He says old growth forests like those found in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest are important because of the high amount of carbon they can store compared to young trees.

“You know, it's funny, if you think about it right now, our government is spending billions of dollars a year to create new equipment to do these new machines. But we have these forests that already capture and hold carbon for us. And we just need to take care of them and they can help take care of us,” said Olsen.

Fourmile Vegetation Project is a selective logging project that’s been in the works since the Trump administration.

WXPR reported on conservationist’s efforts to stop the project in 2020, and they’re still working on that same goal today.

The designated area for cutting is seven miles east of Eagle River and spans 11,700 acres.

It’s not unusual to see selective logging projects of this size, but environmental scientists say that needs to change, and fast.

Transitioning from Trump’s administration to Biden’s, the EPA has a different direction which is renewing efforts to stop the logging project by some environmentalists.

On April 20, 2022, the Biden administration released a new executive order calling for conservation of old-growth and mature-growth forests on Federal lands.

This is Dr. John David Zaber, an environmental consultant who’s been involved in timber sales for decades in the Upper Midwest.

“What the science tells us is that one of the best ways to attenuate the ongoing acceleration of climate change is to protect and increase the amount of old forest globally. So there's that imperative. And this is why the President's directive came down,” said Zaber.

Ron Eckstein is a retired DNR wildlife biologist.

Speaking on behalf of Wisconsin Greenfire, Eckstein disagreed with protestors of the project, saying that the Forest Service’s plans are already following best practices in terms of forestry management.

“I think it's easy to say, gee, if we just don't cut trees, we're, you know, we're in good shape. And that’s really not the answer. It's just the answer is how we harvest trees. And what percentage of the landscape we're going to move into older age classes,” said Eckstein.

In their petition letter, the Environmental Law and Policy Center recognizes that some logging is appropriate. They focus on mature and old-growth trees saying, “it does not mean an end to all logging, and we recognize there are cases where it can be appropriate, including in the Fourmile project area.”

Other environmental consultants, like Dr. Zaber, warn that selective logging inevitably creates habitat loss and harms biodiversity.

He emphasized that logging in the Fourmile area directly impacts the American Marten.

“It's also the last habitat for American Marten, and a host of other things that need those old, intact, moist moss and fungus filled forests. That's not what remains after these logging practices, even the so-called selective logging,” he said.

The Marten also holds significance to Ojibwe Tribes.

Environmentalists like Olsen argue protecting the species habitat further supports their opposition to the Fourmile Project given President Biden’s executive order includes honoring tribe’s cultural and subsistence practices.

“The Ojibwe tribes are concerned about protection of the Clan animal and only mammal protected under Wisconsin's and endangered species laws and that's the American Marten. And they, they did very poor consideration of the impacts on the marten and their logging is actually, they admit, it's going to reduce habitat for the marten which has struggled to persist and may be extricated by their logging,” said Olsen.

In addition to the habitat loss and climate concerns, there have also been changes to the economy which Olsen says impact the project.

“There's a glut right now of timber on the market. The Forest Service says that over 85% of these timber sales are to be used for pulp for paper products. And that market has got a glut at this time and it's saturated, so there's no market emergency, but we do have a climate emergency and so we need the state to act,” said Olsen.

Not everyone agrees, however.

Henry Schienebeck is the Executive Director of the Great Lakes Timber Association.

He says he believes the Forest Service has implemented the best science available to the Fourmile Project and that it should continue as planned.

“We place really high value on our forest just like everybody does. And, you know, the timber industry, a lot of guys are really compelled to… it's not it's not always about you know, making a profit. And we don't want to run out of trees to cut, that would just be contrary to what a logger would like to see. And we also use those same woods for recreation and clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat. I mean, you name it, it all has to do with the trees,” said Schienebeck.

Schienebeck also said that just because the timber industry is currently down, doesn’t mean product demand won’t rebound.

“You know, during that whole COVID period, people were at home, they were really focused on remodeling jobs, and all that type of thing, and lumber was hard to get. And this year, they have focused more on traveling and vacations and that type of thing. So obviously, they don't have money to do both. But you know, so built, the need for building materials is down a little bit, but I expect that's going to change,” said Schienebeck.

I reached out to Chad Kirschbaum, the district ranger for the Forest Service in charge of the Fourmile Project.

He said that the agency is reviewing the project.

Kirschbaum said, “with the goal of long-term health and sustainability in mind, inaction is not a viable option.”

For now, the Forest Service is still deciding on the future of the Fourmile Vegetation Project, and environmentalists vow to keep protesting.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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