Finding a logger in southern Wisconsin can be difficult

Causes include weak pulp markets and decline in loggers

MIDDLETON, Wis. -- Richard Wedepohl, a southern Wisconsin woodlot owner, considers himself a fortunate man. He found someone to log his Managed Forest Law (MFL) land in 2018.

For several years prior, however, he hadn’t been successful in finding anyone to cut his trees to meet the requirements of the MFL program, which is administered by the state Department of Natural Resources and provides landowners a tax break if they manage their property according to DNR guidelines.

Wedepohl’s difficulties aren’t unique. Interviews with forestry officials and others indicate a decline in the number of loggers and a weak market for pulp wood are contributing to the problem.

“I’ve really had problems getting someone to do the work in recent years,” said Wedepohl, a retired Department of Natural Resources engineer who focused on water-quality programs. He has also been a member of the Wisconsin Council on Forestry, which has a goal of achieving a sustainable forestry in the state.

“When I tried to set things up on my MFL land, I made all my contacts. But no one was interested in the trees that I was supposed to be harvesting. That went on for a couple of years.”

Wedepohl said he documented his difficulties and was given a waiver by the DNR. Only when he learned of potential loggers who could cut trees on his land near Prairie du Chien, was he able to quickly execute contracts to get the harvests completed.

He said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that when thinning or other cutting is required in coming years, he’ll be able to find someone to do the work.

Rebecca Mouw, a DNR forestry team leader in Fitchburg, said there are limited options for woodlot owners in southern Wisconsin. She worked in the northern part of the state for many years before relocating to the Madison area in 2017.

“In the north, you can typically get five loggers to bid on a sale,” she said. “Down here, it’s zero to two.”

She said the reasons in her south-central territory range from fewer forests for loggers to work, to the distance from pulpwood markets to lower quality saw logs.

Michael Finlay, a DNR forestry team leader in Richland Center, agreed with Mouw that finding loggers to cut trees for the pulpwood market is difficult. But in his region, he said the sawlog market is strong.

“But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to set up a harvest immediately because companies typically have something on the hook with one- or two-year-old contracts,” he said.

“If I want to arrange something today, it'd be unlikely you'll get it done this winter,” he said. “That is the most common complaint of new landowners. But loggers aren’t going to go in on a one-month contract unless it’s something really desirable.”

He said landowners participating in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) also sometimes find themselves in a bind. Farmers enrolled in CRP agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality in exchange for a yearly rental fee.

“In Vernon and Crawford counties, we have a number of white pine plantations that were planted as CRP programs,” he said. “And those landowners are having challenges to cut those pines for a thinning operation because the species is only moderately desirable and it's a long truck to markets.”

Moreover, he said, loggers are aging out of the industry.

“In the 14 years I’ve been working in southwest Wisconsin, production has gone up while the number of loggers has gone down," he said. "It’s a dangerous profession and there is low recruitment. We’ve made efforts, but it’s not easy.”

Mike Wilm is a 59-year-old a logger who runs Hack-Away Forest Products in Baraboo. He works with his 29-year-old son, whom he hopes will stay in the forestry business. For the senior Wilm's part, he hopes to keep logging for at least five more years.

He said he retooled his operation seven years ago.

“It’s almost time to retool again,” he said. “And if I do, it will be with my son in mind.

“But what young guy wants to get into the sport of logging now when it’s not very inviting,” he mused, citing a litany of hunting, environmental and other restrictions that limit where and when he can work.

“To top it off, the markets are really sh*tty,” he complained. “A lot of the land is in MFL and mills are closing up.

“Ten to 15 years ago, you had to bid violently for any kind of timber and you’d only get 10 percent of the bids you went after,” he said. “Now I can honestly say that if I had a week, I could buy all the wood I need for the whole year - if I wanted to.”

But making money by cutting for the pulpwood market isn’t easy, he said.

“Cutting pulpwood south of the Dells is worth almost nothing,” he explained. “By the time you use your logging rig and your trucking rig, it’s break-even. So you can’t pay much of anything for pulpwood. You’re kinda just doing service for the MFL. You can’t make any money on it.

“If we didn’t have the firewood market, which is a very big thing for us, there is no way you could cut wood down here in MFL and make that work,” he concluded.

Henry Schienebeck, who heads the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, said finding a logger to cut trees on a small properties can be especially hard.

The problem, he agreed, “is pretty significant.

“One thing that a lot of people don’t think about is that if you have a 50-mile haul in northern Wisconsin, you’d be looking at an hour or so. But in southern Wisconsin, with all the stop signs and traffic, it can be two hours or more.

“Loggers have to deal with small woodlots and a lot of invasive species. And there are no pulpwood markets in those areas, so there is nowhere to go with it unless they are selling it for firewood. Frankly, if If I owned land down there, I’d take a chainsaw safety class and learn how to cut the wood myself."

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