Last year, when he heard the Tigerton Lumber Company wanted to lease thousands of acres of its land to deer hunters in Shawano and Waupaca counties, Don Goers wasn't worried. These lands had been open to the public for decades, and the 75-year-old Shawano resident had hunted and trapped on them much of his life.
"I was under the opinion that it couldn't be leased," says Goers. "It was open to the public, and therefore could not be leased out. I thought."
He was wrong. The Tigerton lands were under the state's Managed Forest Law, which grants tax breaks to forest owners who manage their lands for sustainable forestry. But in fact, the law grants property owners a low tax even if they don't provide public access.
In Tigerton's case, to lease the land the company merely had to pay a higher tax rate on the 15,000 acres it pulled from public access in 2005, from 83 cents per acre to $1.95 per acre. Considering that Tigerton is charging $40 per acre for hunting leases, it makes sense for them to lease.
The Tigerton situation reflects a larger shift for Wisconsin's northern forests, as paper companies re-evaluate their lands as assets. In fact, many paper and lumber companies operating in Wisconsin have put at least some of their properties up for sale, deciding it's easier to get their wood from private landowners, while reaping windfalls from land sales.
International Paper, for example, recently unloaded all of its Wisconsin holdings, or 65,000 acres. Plum Creek, the state's largest private landholder with 500,000 acres, has sold off substantial tracts ' much to the state of Wisconsin and conservation groups, but some for development.
"Wausau Papers has gone on record that it will sell more than 40,000 acres over the next five years," says Rich Lavalley, a forest tax law specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
These lands are called "industrial forests," as they produce the trees needed for paper and lumber mills. Since 1999, approximately 100,000 acres of industrial forests have been removed from public access.
"We're seeing a trend here," says Lavalley. "I'd expect that, in the next five years, at least another 100,000 acres will be lost from the industrial forest base."
Much of that will be broken into small parcels, for home development. "When we see it go into smaller, private landholders," says Lavalley, "the majority of those lands go out of public hunting."
Interestingly enough, this shift is forging an alliance between Wisconsin hunters, foresters and environmentalists. These groups, which often are on opposite sides in natural resource debates, want the same thing: for forest lands to be maintained and public access preserved.
"We are seeing unprecedented growth in the North Woods, especially in the last five years," says Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a Madison-based environmental group. "If the development pattern continues unchecked, were going to see a North Woods populated with many more homes and roads and businesses, and a really significant deterioration in the natural quality of the North Woods."
To blunt the impact of such development, "We've been working with some unlikely parties," says Hiniker. "Foresters and woodlot owners, looking for ways they can continue harvesting their forests in a sustainable manner."
But don't foresters cut down forests, the very thing environmentalists want to save? As long as it's not clear-cutting, says Hiniker, "sustainable, selective forestry can preserve the habitats and ecosystems much better than single-home development ever will. It's become the kind of option we're facing."
Hunters, many of whom use public access lands, are an equally important constituency. Hiniker points to the Jobs Creation Act of 2003 as an example of sportsmen and enviros working together to lessen the impact of a bill that relaxed environmental regulations. Leading the opposition was the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a collection of 130 sporting and conservation groups headed by former DNR secretary George Meyer.
The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental group with a big presence in Wisconsin, also works closely with Wisconsin loggers, hunters and anglers. The group recently joined with the state of Wisconsin and a timber investment company to buy 65,000 acres from International Paper, creating the Wild Rivers Legacy Forest.
This 101-square-mile chunk of undeveloped land in Florence, Forest and Marinette Counties will remain open to the public for cross-country skiing, hiking, camping, canoeing, snowmobiling, fishing and hunting. Sustainable forestry will also continue to be practiced here.
"There was a time when we didn't want logging," admits Matt Dallman, the Nature Conservancy's director of conservation for Northern Wisconsin. "We saw it as destructive to the environment. Twenty years ago, we'd have said, You want us to work with timber companies? You're crazy!"
The same was true for hunting.
"In the past, I'd say we'd often viewed hunting as something we didn't want on the properties we bought," says Dallman. "Maybe given the species we were trying to save, we didn't see hunting as compatible with preserving the land."
But that's changed, as groups like the Nature Conservancy have adopted what Dallman calls an "eco-regional planning approach." This means working with non-traditional partners "like loggers and farmers and builders," says Dallman, "as well as snowmobile clubs and hunting clubs."
With the Wild Rivers Legacy Forest, the Nature Conservancy provided a $39 million bridge loan, as part of a larger $83 million deal, until state funds are available. "If people don't have the chance to enjoy nature, they're not going to care about protecting nature," says Dallman. "So protecting public access, the right to hunt and fish and recreate here, was a big goal of ours when we started working on this project."
On the other side of the equation are hunters and anglers who find themselves working with enviros. Dan Gunderson, executive director of the Middleton-based Wisconsin Outdoors Alliance (formerly the Wisconsin Hunting and Fishing Alliance), notes that many in the hook-and-bullet crowd view enviros with a jaded eye.
"We've got to get past our old biases," says Gunderson. "We have to make the tent bigger." He thinks sportsmen and enviros ought to working together in a number of areas, like buttressing the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which the state uses to buy land.
But perceptions remain problematic. As Dallman puts it, "There are still [environmental] groups that say, 'The only way to save the North Woods is to get rid of the people.' That hurts a lot. It creates big conflicts with groups that could work together."
A hunter and angler, 1000 Friends' Hiniker agrees some enviros have unnecessarily alienated hunters and fishermen. But he also knows the political right has hyped these supposed differences, and very effectively.
Last year, Hiniker was driving through Marquette County to his deer hunting area, when he saw a posted sign: "Support the North Woods: Vote for Bush!"
"Somebody had a really great PR system," Hiniker recalls thinking, "to get this landowner to believe that Bush and his policies of exploitation were somehow going to preserve the North Woods."