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Old growth forest and logging concerns at the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

February 6, 2024 at Fourmile, Divide Road
Environmental Law and Policy Center
February 6, 2024 at Fourmile, Divide Road

At the end of last year, the USDA announced that all 128 forest land management plans across the country were going to be revised in accordance with President Biden’s executive order.

That directive was to conserve and restore old and mature forests.

The USDA is having land management plans revised to steward and protect old growth conditions.

For WXPR’s The Stream, Hannah Davis-Reid spoke with environmental experts about how this impacts the Chequamegon- Nicolet National Forest.

“We're headed east out of Eagle River. And we're gonna visit the Echo Lakes State Natural Area, which is part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It's a good example of the kind of old forests that would have dominated most of northern Wisconsin 150 years ago.”

That’s Fred Clark. He’s a forest ecologist who works with Wisconsin Green Fire, a conservation group.

He’s teaching me about old growth forests, which turn out to be a lot more than a collection of old trees.

Yes, there are the trees that are over 150 years old, but, importantly, there are also saplings growing in brushy gaps, middle aged trees, dead snags, rotting stumps and spreading canopies.

“With that, you get so much opportunity for wildlife and birds and mammals and diversity of life forms and species that you typically don't find in a plantation forest, for example,” he explained.

In February, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, or the ELPC, reached out to WXPR with concerns about the timber sale at the Sunfish site in the Fourmile Project in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

They filed a complaint that loggers violated their contract by logging old growth trees on soft ground during a warm spell.

“It's important that the ground is frozen to protect the soils to avoid compaction, which reduces the filtration of water, reduces the ability of plants to sprout and grow. We observed that they were logging when temperatures were well above freezing for days on end,” said Olsen.

February 6, 2024 at Fourmile on Divide Road
Environmental Law and Policy Center
February 6, 2024 at Fourmile on Divide Road

They wanted logging halted immediately and a post-mortem study to be conducted for more information on exactly which trees were logged.

“This kind of very heavy logging has the effect of doing extensive damage to the forest that we're only beginning to understand today,” said Olsen.

The team from ELPC documented old trees that had been logged, which concerned them given old growth forest policy changes.

“It was, just really, held so much promise, for recreation, for habitat, for hunting. And that promise has been removed now. It's been destroyed. And it's really heartbreaking to see it,” said Olsen.

WXPR reached out to the Forest Service, who responded with a statement that said it did a “thorough review of logging operations in the Sunfish sale and all procedures were followed.”

It also said “no timber harvest activities are planned in old growth areas per the Chequamegon-Nicolet’s Land and Resource Management Plan’s old growth definition.”

It said that while waiting for the agency to amend Forest Plans nationwide, it would “continue to address the goals of the Fourmile Project, including increasing the area’s resilience to disease and drought, reducing hazardous fuels, and improving habitat conditions for a variety of plants and animals.”

Despite criticism by groups like the ELPC, others, like Fred Clark, commend the Forest Service’s management of the Fourmile area.

“Actually, among national forests in this region the Chequamegon-Nicolet has kind of led the pack in the work they've done to identify old growth forests and protect them,” said Clark.

He pointed out that close to half of the project area around the Fourmile Project is already labeled as an old growth or research natural area, off the table for timber management.

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Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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