Following 2019 Northwoods Windstorm, Forest Service Clears Thousands of Flattened Acres
On Monday, John Lampereur guided his white U.S. Forest Service pickup truck over bumpy dirt roads in northern Oconto County near Lakewood.
“This would be the deep, dark forest,” he said. “Yes, definitely.”
Or, at least it was the deep, dark forest, until July 19, 2019.
“This is an area that was 100 percent damaged,” Lampereur said. “Just about everything that we’ve driven through was completely flattened.”
A vicious windstorm ripped across northern Wisconsin that day, damaging 130,000 acres of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Its deepest wounds were left here in Oconto and Langlade counties, where Lampereur has managed the forest for decades.
“Just about every stand out here, I’ve had some history in, I’ve been in here, we’ve had a timber sale or we’ve done some thinning or prescribed fire or something,” Lampereur said. “I come out here and I think, all of that time and energy that we put into it, it’s all completely history now.”
It was the combination of rapid high-level winds, rarely seen at their speeds, with an extremely unstable air mass that set the table for the day.
Gene Brusky, the Science and Operations Officer for the National Weather Service’s Green Bay office, explained what happened next.
“What initiated the actual surge and the blowdown that actually began just northwest of Langlade County was a supercell that was out ahead of that squall line that was developing,” Brusky said. “Once that supercell merged with the squall line, the blowdown began.”
After the storm rolled through, Brusky and his colleagues could only rely on aerial images to learn about what happened. Roads were impassable for ground surveys, covered by 15 feet of tree trunks.
“Some of those images of the tree damage from satellite and from the ground were really quite fascinating,” Brusky said. “It’s relatively rare to see that on such a scale.”
The most recent event that even compares, according to Brusky, was a blowdown back in 1977.
Once they got a look, foresters saw a woods that needed to be harvested. Only now, the trees were lying horizontally instead of reaching to the sky.
“You can just look at dollars and cents. There’s a lot of dollars there on the ground that can be salvaged,” Forest Service forester Adrian Ackley remembered thinking.
He expected downed trees would begin to rot quickly and lose their remaining value. Furthermore, all of that downed timber created fuel, vastly increasing wildfire risk.
Urgency allowed for little delay as timber sales were set up and loggers got to work.
As much timber has now been hauled out of this section of forest in fewer than two years as normally would be harvested in ten years.
Lampereur said, to date, it has totaled about 100 timber sales and 265 million board-feet.
“To put it in layman’s terms, that would be 51,600 loaded logging trucks, bumper to bumper, from Lakewood, Wisconsin, to Nashville, Tennessee,” he said. “That’s a lot of wood.”
The high- and medium-priority areas have now been cleared of the trunks that littered the ground.
Many blowdown zones have only a few standing snags remaining, intentionally left behind as animal habitat.
Some quick-arriving young trees like aspen are starting to regenerate.
“We’ve done a pretty good job, all things considered, in getting these areas cleaned up. I look at this out here and I don’t see how it could have been much better,” Lampereur said.
So, looking back on July 19, 2019, just how fast did the winds blow?
We don’t actually know yet, meteorologist Gene Brusky admitted.
He’s finally surveying some parts of the forest next month to nail it down, but his best guess is between 85 and 100 miles per hour.
John Lampereur is looking back, too.
He found historical pictures of precise locations on the National Forest dating as far back as 1936.
Visiting those locations, he took new snapshots, creating a timeline that shows the forest’s maturation and later leveling.
Windstorms are natural.
The forest will be fine, Lampereur knows.
It’s his job to figure out how to respond from a human side.
“You have to think about things long-term into the future,” he said. “You’ve been handed lemons, and now you try to make the best of it.”