On a sunny day in a shaded forest, Don Waller and Dave Zaber, two environmental professionals, came across an orchid growing on the forest floor.
This part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Eagle River is maturing, with tall trees, a shady canopy, and a cooler temperature.
It’s good orchid habitat.
But that might change soon, Zaber said.
“We’re in a proposed cutting unit of the Fourmile timber sale,” he said.
The National Forest has slated this area for selective harvest, part of 11,700 acres identified for cutting as part of what’s called the Fourmile project.
Cutting on the National Forest is not uncommon, and neither is the size of the project.
But the loudness of the objections to this project from people like Waller and Zaber is rather rare.
Like most of the Northwoods, these forests were cut over during the timber boom more than a century ago.
They’re still catching up, Waller said.
“What we have are forests in the 20th century and early 21st century still in a state of rehab, rehabilitation, recovering from that great cutover in the late 1800s and early 20th century,” he said. “What we have now is a fork in the road.”
The two biologists wish, instead of this cutting plan, the National Forest would allow this area to complete its recovery.
“They’re cutting the forest off at the knees, in a sense, in terms of its total potential lifespan,” said Waller.
Zaber works as an environmental consultant, and Waller is a former UW-Madison botany professor. Waller chairs a science panel for the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, or ELPC.
That organization has filed a formal Notice of Objection to the Forest Service’s planned cutting here.
It especially takes issue with selective cutting on swaths the National Forest has given a “2B”, or “adaptive management” designation.
The selective cutting wouldn’t clear-cut the areas, instead removing individual trees. But Waller and Zaber say the 2B areas were designed to act as buffers to high-quality, older forests, and should be allowed to mature on their own.
Near the orchid, in the middle of a 2B-designated area, Zaber spotted a downed tree. He said it’s prime habitat for American marten, a small, weasel-like animal.
“This would be like a marten resort,” Zaber said. “It’s the Sandals for martens.”
The American marten is Wisconsin’s only state-endangered mammal, and this very forest was the heart of marten reintroduction efforts decades ago.
Zaber argues the proposed cut would destroy marten habitat.
Forest Service data shows marten habitat in the project area would likely be decreased by about 16 percent five years after cutting starts. By the time ten years had passed, habitat would have recovered, down only two percent from its original level.
Information like that was embedded in hundreds of pages of environmental reports reviewed by Chad Kirschbaum, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Eagle River-Florence District Ranger.
He approved moving the project forward without an even deeper environmental review, giving the overall project a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI.
“After considering the environmental effects described in Environmental Assessment and project record, I determined the actions in the Fourmile project would not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment,” Kirschbaum wrote in an email to WXPR.
In a separate interview with WXPR, Kirschbaum said all harvest projects must fit within the Forest’s overarching 2004 Land and Resource Management Plan, and the Fourmile plan does.
“We are balancing and managing the land for multiple uses, like providing for recreation opportunities, protecting plant and animal habitat, and providing wood for our local economies,” he said.
The project would yield 45 million board-feet of timber, valued at about $4 million, according to Kirschbaum.
He’s confident in the selective cutting planned for the 2B areas, saying the plan designates them as “suitable for timber production.”
“We are mimicking, to a degree, natural wind disturbances while providing wood fiber for our local economies,” Kirschbaum said.
Waller’s environmental group, the ELPC, has formally challenged the National Forest’s “no significant impact” finding. The ELPC points out the National Forest completed only an Environmental Assessment, not a more rigorous, time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement.
The ELPC, citing concerns about overall forest health and threats to species like the American marten and wood turtle, is calling for a full Environmental Impact Statement.
It’s a decision now in the hands of Paul Strong, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Supervisor.
At the same time, not all conservation groups share the same deep concern as the ELPC.
Ron Eckstein has tediously reviewed the hundreds of pages of the Fourmile plan.
“I’m very familiar with it,” he said.
Eckstein is a retired DNR Wildlife Biologist doing volunteer work for Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a nonprofit group promoting science-based management of the state’s natural resources.
Green Fire declined to join ELPC’s objections to the project.
There’s “no question” the National Forest is “cutting a lot of timber,” Eckstein said. But if the Forest Service cuts in a manner consistent with its Standards and Guidelines within the 2004 forest plan, there’s little worry, he believes.
“Here in Wisconsin, we think the plan is good,” Eckstein said. “The main, main thing is for the Forest Service to follow the plan, and we think they will.”
Eckstein was also personally involved in American marten revival on the land in the 1970s. He said he’s not particularly concerned the project will threaten its habitat.
“I personally know the wildlife biologist and the forest ecologist. I have confidence in them that…they’re trying to protect wildlife habitat and forest biodiversity,” he said.
Waller and Zaber, two of the project’s main objectors, ended their day on a piece of National Forest cut a few years ago.
The landscape is noticeably different than their earlier stops, with far fewer large trees and plenty of direct sunlight penetrating to the ground.
“We’ve opened up the forest. We’ve made for intense light in the understory. Probably not the kind of conditions that supported that orchid we saw,” Waller said.
“It’s tiresome, having to come out here all the time, to explain why this isn’t the way to do it,” Zaber added. “Clearly, there’s nothing habitat-wise for marten in here.”
At the same time, the pair were quick to make this point.
“We are not against logging. The National Forests permit and pursue logging as one of their legitimate goals,” Waller said. “What we’re against in this particular Fourmile project is the amount of logging, and particularly, where the logging is being done.”
Slow down, they tell the Forest Service.
Do a more thorough environmental analysis and protect the areas with the best chance to fully recover and mature.
“We think they’ll reach a different decision,” said Waller. “We think that they will do the right thing.”
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Supervisor Paul Strong is not bound to a specific timeline in choosing whether to send the project forward or order a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.