Feature – Branching out

Posted on May 1, 2014 :: Features
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

At a public hearing in Rhinelander last fall, Oconto, Florence and Forest county officials proposed a pilot project to address what they say is the U.S Forest Service’s mismanagement of Wisconsin’s national forests that may have led to the closing of many Wisconsin sawmills in the last decade.

The pilot project would put the Northwoods county governments in co-management relationships with the Wisconsin U.S. Forest Service for selected portions of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) within each of the three counties, says Paul Ehrfurth, executive director of Oconto County Economic Development and Tourism Corp.

“It is probably the most significant challenge and significant problem, and the most significant economic development potential in these northern counties,” Ehrfurth says. During the last 12 years, issues such as stagnant budgets, reduced staff, environmental groups filing lawsuits and lobbying in Washington and the overwhelming federal regulations that slow the bidding process for companies relying on forest products have all played a role in the mismanagement of national forests, he says.

Changes to the federal regulations – such as allowing more timber harvesting operations and increasing the amount of timber that national forests are allowed to sell – would help national forests be more efficient, says Paul Strong, Wisconsin CNNF forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service.

“If there were process changes that were substantial that allowed us to operate at higher levels of efficiency but there was no difference in budget, we could likely produce higher levels of outcomes,” Strong says. “So in a sense, something would have to change in the system that affects us in order for us to operate with higher levels of outputs.”

Strict regulations result in negative economic, ecological and social consequences, Strong believes. Economically, an increase in timber harvesting operations would allow more opportunities for businesses to rely on a supply of raw wood material from national forests. Ecologically, improving forest management would allow the national forests to meet more of their forest plan conservation goals. Socially, increasing the amount of timber national forests can sell would allow local companies to buy raw material inexpensively, keeping employees on staff and living in the community.

Up to 6,000 jobs in the Northwoods would open if the national forests were able to properly manage their timber harvesting, Ehrfurth says.

“We’ve lost quite a bit of industry,” says Henry Schienebeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Professionals Association. Notably, NewPage Corp. Niagara Mill closed in July 2008 and several other sawmills and paper mills across Wisconsin’s Northwoods also have shut down.

An increase in raw material costs, the economic downturn and lack of management has led to the mill closings, according to Schienebeck. The latter issue may have the biggest impact on the local economies, says Jane Severt, executive director of Wisconsin County Forests Association.