Wisconsin’s Forests: Destroyed, Now Reborn

The past, present and future of Wisconsin's public lands

Mike Dombeck January 5, 2023

Excerpted from The Vanishing Present: Wisconsin’s Changing Lands, Waters, and Wildlife edited by Donald M. Waller and Thomas P. Rooney. Reproduced by permission of The University of Chicago Press. © 2008 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Over the past five decades, I have driven from central Wisconsin to the northwestern part of the state hundreds of times. I made the trip first as a small boy when my family relocated from rural Marathon County to Moose Lake in Sawyer County. And later, as a college student, I made the trek from my family’s home to University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Today, I continue to drive the route from my house on the sloughs of the Wisconsin River near Stevens Point to hunt and fish and visit with old friends and family. My course crosses the Wisconsin River four times and the Flambeau and Chippewa rivers twice. Looking through the eyes of a biologist and a conservationist, now old enough to have an appreciation of history, what I see is not just a landmass—a 56,000-square-mile place on a map—but also our heritage and, in certain respects, our future.

Along the route, I drive through second- and third-growth mixed hardwood forests of primarily aspen where the ancient white and red pine forests once stood. I look out upon the Wisconsin River, which has ebbed and flowed with man’s every step forward and back—a river that at one time had a dam every seven miles from Plover upriver to Vilas County and was once so polluted with industrial and municipal waste that the fish were totally inedible below Rhinelander. As I travel down a four-lane interstate that, in my youth, was two lanes of blacktop, I see a love of the outdoors in the canoes, mountain bikes, snowmobiles, boats, jet skis and four-wheelers strapped to cars and trailers. The imprint of man—both the good and the bad—is ubiquitous.

Prior to the advent of European settlement, the slow-moving rivers produced an abundance of wild rice, known to the Ojibwa as manoomin or “delicacy from the Great Spirit.” People often burned the oak savannas to promote berries and fresh grass. The rivers and lakes they lived by were clean enough to drink out of. With the advancing populations of European explorers, traders, and new settlers, man’s imprint on Wisconsin’s landscape quickly changed. The fur trade—the system of commerce that attracted early French explorers and traders like Jean Nicolet to the region—overharvested the beaver. On the heels of the declining fur trade—due both to a lack of beaver pelts and changing fashion styles—the westward expansion of the United States began to move into Wisconsin in earnest as waves of settlers came to mine and farm what would soon become the 30th state admitted into the Union. 

During the initial period of European settlement, the immense forests of the Great Lakes region were seen as little more than obstacles. Trees stood in the way of a plow’s straight furrows and thus of America’s expanding agrarian backbone. Trees slowed down the progress of roads and railroads. Forests contained wild animals that threatened families—they were wild places, out of step with how the young nation viewed itself. Because they were so abundant, wetlands were viewed as wasted space. Later, technology made it possible to drain these lands for crop production. The new settlers set about to tame the untamed. 

By the end of the great cutover, slash gave rise to tremendous forest fires. The great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 burned 1.28 million acres, killing an estimated 1,500 people. While it remains the most disastrous forest fire ever in U.S. history, it was not the only devastating fire to visit Wisconsin. Forest fires became commonplace, and catastrophic blazes scorched the landscape from the 1860s to the 1930s. Whether intentionally or unintentionally set, the fires exposed fragile soils to the eroding effects of rain and snow. The burned off areas were aggressively farmed—often with mixed results due to the lack of nutrients in the soil and the seemingly endless fields of stumps—causing further erosion. Soils were swept into Wisconsin’s rivers, lakes and wetlands. 

As Wisconsin’s lands were changing by the day, the landscape of public policy as it pertained to trees and water was changing as well, although much more slowly. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, the attitude toward trees and water—especially those on public lands—began to shift and once again was mirrored in the state’s landscape. This new attitude had its roots in the eastern United States with people that recognized the value of forests beyond commerce. 

In his writings of 1864, Henry David Thoreau had called for the creation of national forest preserves, “not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation.” That same year, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation granting that Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to California be held forever “for public use, resort, and recreation.” A decade later, Congress established Yellowstone National Park. States began to join the movement, with New York establishing the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885 so that the preserve “shall be kept forever as wild forest lands.” 

Not surprisingly, this early effort aimed at preserving the nation’s forests and waters experienced halts and delays and was surrounded by controversy. The same year that the Adirondack Forest Preserve was created, Congress voted down a half dozen bills to create public forest reserves. When in 1891, legislation was finally passed giving the president authority to create forest reserves by withdrawing forestlands from the public domain, western states balked and tried to abolish the law. These were, after all, radical notions for the period and not in line with the tame and conquer mind-set that until recently been the norm. 

In Wisconsin, trepidation over the state’s changing landscape and the desire to better manage public lands for the future had its beginnings around the same period as Thoreau’s writings. In 1867, the Wisconsin legislature authorized the Forestry Commission to study forest destruction in the state. Twelve years later, 50,000 acres of state park lands had been established in Vilas and Iron counties. The concern was not necessarily for aesthetics and public enjoyment, as Thoreau and other naturalists had called for, but for utilitarian needs. Wisconsin’s future, at that time, was economically linked to the forests. While there were other industries in the state—like agriculture—the timber industry dominated the economy. 

What at one time had seemed like an inexhaustible and boundless landscape—what one Wisconsin member of Congress had described in 1852 as having enough trees to supply American wants forever—was exhausted— both literally and figuratively. The state’s waters were terribly polluted, having served as a receptacle for waste from the milling industry and as a sewage discharge system for cities. 

Today, there are more acres of forest in Wisconsin than when the first inventory was taken in 1936.

But by the turn of the century, as logging on public lands was reaching its fevered pitch in Wisconsin, the growing conservation ethic became ingrained throughout the United States. In 1891, the ethic helped to spawn congressional passage of the Forest Reserve Act, which authorized the president to set aside forest reserves from the public domain. A few years later, in 1897, the Forest Management Act was approved. The act specified that forest reserves were to “improve and protect the forest, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.” 

Although the Reserve and Management acts establishing the forest reserves were designed to preserve, maintain and manage the great tracts of forests in the West, they also had a marked effect on public opinion east of the Mississippi River. This resulted in the passage of the Weeks Act of 1911, which gave the federal government the authority to purchase burned-over woodlands and cutover stump lands to conserve and protect the nation’s water supply. Unlike the Forest Reserve and Forest Management acts, the Weeks Act was designed to target eastern lands near navigable waters. An amendment to the law, approved in 1924, allowed the government to purchase lands for timber production. The eventual creation of Wisconsin’s Chequamegon and Nicolet National Forests were the direct result of these laws. 

The most remarkable change to Wisconsin’s public lands after the turn of the century came, not through efforts to preserve, but through the work to restore and heal. In 1933, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created by the Roosevelt administration to put unemployed young men to work across the United States. The jobs program became a metaphor for the expression “to give is to receive.” At its onset, there were 47 CCC camps scattered across Wisconsin. In exchange for 30 dollars per month, young men were employed to fight soil erosion and to restore Wisconsin’s public forests. By the end of 1942, the CCC had assigned nearly 165,000 men to 128 camps throughout Wisconsin, planting an estimated 265 million trees in the state to repair watersheds. 

The legacy of the CCC can be seen not only in the forests of the Chequamegon and in the preservation of the ancient Driftless Area but in signs marking the location of their camps and in plaques memorializing their work. The labor of the CCC employees and the efforts of the early conservation movement are also reflected in the present-day attitudes of Wisconsinites toward the state’s public lands and waters. A recent survey found that a full 89% believe conservation is important to future generations. 

Today, there are more acres of forest in Wisconsin than when the first inventory was taken in 1936. The number of acres of forested land in the state has actually increased by 1.2 million acres since 1980, now reaching nearly 50 percent.* There are nine state forests encompassing over a half million acres and 1.5 million acres of national forest land. While many states have experienced a decline in timber harvests—especially in the West—Wisconsin’s timber industry has actually seen an increase in harvest levels since 1990. 

Since the dawn of the conservation movement in Wisconsin, we see great improvements in the abundance of clean, clear water flowing off our forests. Fish and wildlife now thrive in our rivers, lakes and forests, contributing to a sporting industry that generates $8 billion a year. Wisconsin ranks second only to Florida in the number of fishing licenses sold each year (though Florida’s population is three times greater than Wisconsin’s). 

Although Wisconsin’s landscape and our public lands and waters appear to be doing well, certainly in contrast to the turn of the 20th century, our state is at a crossroads. We see progress in many areas, but challenges to our forests and waters continue to mount because of the ever-growing imprint of mankind. For example, half the wetlands here at statehood are now gone, having been drained for farming and developments. The others continue to face a multitude of threats including urban sprawl. Expanding shoreline recreational development throughout the state directly and indirectly threatens the aquatic health of many of our rivers and lakes. 

In spite of an increase of wooded acres and cleaner water than existed at the turn of the 20th century, many species throughout the state are in decline or threatened with wholesale extinction. There are currently 73 endangered, 65 threatened, and 185 special concern species, including such magnificent forest dwellers as snow trillium, northern gooseberry, ram’s-head lady’s slipper and blue ash. The understory plant diversity of our forests is far lower than it should be partly due to over browsing by deer. 

Erosion is also a growing problem on our public lands. Increasingly, this reflects impacts from recreational visitors taking enjoyment from the land more than impacts from those harvesting trees from the forests. Offroad vehicles and four-wheel drive trails cause serious damage to our forests—the source of our cleanest water. In addition, their use is rapidly expanding with a 36% increase in all-terrain vehicle registrations in the state from 2000 to 2005. Not only do these vehicles cause irreparable harm to the soil and contribute to erosion, their tires also help spread exotic (nonnative) plant species in our public forests. 

Buckthorn, zebra mussels, Eurasian water-milfoil plants and a host of other alien invaders are quickly spreading throughout our public and private lands and waters. Free of the natural predators that checked their growth in their countries of origin, these species threaten our forests, waters, plants and animals. With more people moving into the forest and planting exotic landscape plants, the threat will only increase if steps aren’t taken to halt their spread. 

It’s been said that the only constant is change. One hundred years from now, as my descendants drive along the back roads of Wisconsin, the landscape they will see will be far different than what exists today. The question will be whether or not the public forests and waters they look out upon will be healthier than they are today—whether those ecosystems positively or negatively reflect what we do today to preserve and nurture them. 

If Wisconsin is to assure that future generations have the opportunity to access natural forests, clean water and an abundant and diverse population of fish and wildlife we must recognize today, as Aldo Leopold did more than 50 years ago, that our lands and waters are communities, “to which we belong.” Like all species, mankind’s future is tied to the earth. When we preserve the lands—especially those lands held in the public realm—and the species they support, we preserve opportunities for future generations to not only experience true wild places but to live in a healthy, balanced world. When we heal the land and waters, we heal ourselves. 

We can never go back in time. Our descendants will never experience the sights and surroundings that the early explorers witnessed in their journeys through the region. But we can move forward with an understanding of the importance of healthy public forests and waters to not only our heritage but also our collective well-being.

*Update: Wisconsin’s forest coverage, today around 17 million acres, remains just under half the state’s land area. 

Mike Dombeck

Mike Dombeck, who grew up in Marathon and Sawyer County, Wis., is a former professor of global conservation at the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (2001-2010). He is the former chief of the U.S. Forest Service and was previously acting director of the Bureau of Land Management.

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