Logs remain after a timber harvest near Upper Gresham Lake in Vilas County. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
An update to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rules that guide logging on public lands has raised concerns among activists that the department will allow more trees to be cut down and harm the state’s northern forests.
The DNR’s Forestry Best Management Practices Advisory Committee is working to update the department’s best management practices for the first time since 2011, and met on Thursday to discuss the process for creating new rules. The best management practices (BMPs) lay out the guidelines for how to cut down trees while protecting wildlife habitat and the water quality of nearby lakes — laying out how many trees can be cut down close to a water source or where a road for equipment can be constructed. On the state’s public lands, the BMPs are mandatory.
For two years, a group of Vilas County residents and assorted conservation groups have been fighting the department over its compliance with these rules, claiming that logging operations are cutting down too many trees too close to a number of lakes in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
When cutting near shorelines, the DNR must keep a certain amount of tree density within a 100-foot buffer — known as the riparian management zone (RMZ). The RMZ buffer doesn’t mean trees can’t be harvested close to the shoreline, just that most need to be left behind in order to protect against erosion and maintain habitat for the plants and animals that rely on it. There are also exemptions that call for more conservative or more intensive cutting within the RMZ, depending on the conditions and slope of the soil.
Ardis Berghoff and John Schwarzmann, who live near Whitney Lake in Vilas County, have found a number of lakes in the area, including Whitney, in which the trees within the RMZ have been totally cleared out, the Wisconsin Examiner reported last year.
The DNR has continually denied Berghoff and Schwarzmann’s claims and multiple audits have come to conflicting conclusions.
As the department is refusing to give in, the advisory committee is working on its update, worrying Berghoff, Schwarzmann and other activists that the mandatory rules will be relaxed, codifying the rule breaking and allowing logging operations to permanently damage habitats and water sources in some of the most pristine parts of Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
After a committee meeting in October in which members suggested removing the minimum width required for an RMZ, their fears appeared to be realized, they say. On Thursday, the duo spoke at the committee meeting about the importance of keeping the strict rules as the state’s climate changes and extreme weather events, including heavy rainfall, continue to influence the region.
They also implored the DNR to temporarily halt all logging within RMZs while the best management practices are being updated so no more lakes are affected by the improper logging.
“Over and over again on these riparian zones on many lakes we saw RMZs narrowed, over and over again, and there was no evidence — site specific conditions — that would call for such a narrowing,” Berghoff said. “The only thing we could see was more trees were going to be cut.They wanted those trees. They took the trees.”
“And while your processes laid out seem very thoughtful and you’re covering lots of stages,” Berghoff added, “in the meantime, during the rest of 2022 and all of 2023 tracts with RMZs are going to be continued to be cut with the conditions that I’ve just described, and the DNR has the ability to say ‘Whoa, let’s put a halt to cutting in the RMZ.’”
“Are you going to let our logging proceed in RMZs, where there are potential violations?” she asked. “Are you going to let that continue? We’ve been reaching out to the DNR now for two years. So we are asking, what is the DNR going to do?”
Bethany Polchowski, a forester for Biewer Lumber on the committee, said that if the DNR instituted a halt, loggers would lose time and money.
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“There is an economic potential and impact to individual loggers that have bid on timber sales,” she said. “This is their bottom line.”
Andy Stoltman, the DNR forester running the meeting, said that Berghoff and Schwarzmann can continue to be involved in the process of crafting the new BMPs, but that the DNR does not agree with their assessments of the logging sites.
“I would say that the DNR does not agree with what you found,” he said.
In addition to the weakening of the rules, conservationists are worried about the makeup of the committee, saying that the logging industry and related businesses are overrepresented, presenting what they say is a clear conflict of interest as loggers decide the rules that could determine how much money they make on a given site.
Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center who spoke at the meeting, told the Wisconsin Examiner said he finds it incredible how unbalanced the committee is.
“I expected the industry would dominate it, but the extent at which they do is really kind of shocking,” he says. “We have a majority of logging industry or logging industry surrogates on this committee.”
“[It’s] just a gobsmacking conflict of interest,” he adds. “The companies buying the timber under the rules are also deciding the rules. It’s a classic fox guarding the chicken coop.”
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