From now on, just call me "Mr. Ambassador."
For the better part of four days at the end of August, I was among a group of about two dozen people who received intensive instruction in woodlands management at a little-known training camp in northern Wisconsin.
The goal of the program, offered through the University of Wisconsin, is to pump a small group of people full of explosive quantities of knowledge and enthusiasm, then turn them loose on an unsuspecting public.
As Scott Craven, one of several UW Extension wildlife specialists who are in on this plot, put it, "We want you to become ambassadors and promoters of this ideal of good forest stewardship."
The program, known as the Wisconsin Coverts Project, is geared toward the ordinary citizens who own more than half of the state's 16 million acres of woodland. The name comes from the 14th-century English word covert, pronounced "kuh-vert," which describes a dense thicket that provides cover for wildlife.
In the mid-1990s, covert programs sprung up in more than a dozen states. Today, only Wisconsin's program exists as it started, although other states offer similar training. To date, Wisconsin has graduated more than 500 "coverts cooperators," who've infiltrated every stratum of the population. One might be within an acre of you now.
This year the program staged two sessions at the Kemp Natural Resources Station, a gorgeous parcel of donated land near Woodruff. There we were subjected to morning-to-night indoctrination on such topics as timber production, small mammal identification and herptile management.
We received a four-inch-thick binder of pamphlets and brochures, topped off with a copy of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. We visited nearby forest lands, where we learned how to build track stations to identify animal visitors and set live traps to assess small mammal populations.
One night we traveled by bus to deserted roadways to howl like wolves, in hopes of hearing wolves howl back. No such luck, but we did stir up some coyotes and doubtless sent chills down the spine of nearby residents. (Our howler-in-chief, DNR wolf expert Adrian Wydeven, was most convincing.)
My role within this group was that of an embedded journalist, ever on the lookout for tidbits that might be of value to other woodland property owners. Here is some of what I learned.
- The worst management strategy is leaving it be. Management by benign neglect is actively detrimental, letting invasive species spread and valuable timber go to waste. An aspen stand logged near the end of its life will regenerate from its roots; the same stand left alone will die miserably, leaving unusable wood, and take much longer to recover.
- Clear-cut is not (always) a dirty word. It's true clear-cutting can be devastating if practiced carelessly. But the clear-cutting of mature stands may be the best way to harvest timber and ensure quality regeneration. Some private landowners clear-cut small sections on a rotating basis, to ensure a diversity of stand ages. Plots with a mix of tree ages should be logged selectively, with the goal of improving growing conditions for those that remain.
- Dead trees are full of life. Death is a relative term when it comes to forests, as even the healthiest trees are technically dead inside. And dead standing trees - a.k.a. snags - are wildlife hotels, teeming with critters great and small. It is recommended that Wisconsin property owners maintain three or more large snags per acre. Deadfalls are also essential to a healthy forest.
- Critters are like crops. Scott Craven told our group, "Wildlife is a product of your land, just as much as trees." And there are things that property owners can do to attract certain species and repel others. The DNR produces pamphlets and brochures on how to manage land for the benefit of everything from turkeys to frogs.
- Learn what you have. As far as most people are concerned, Craven complained, "anything furry and smaller than a squirrel is some kind of damn mouse." To prove his point, he held up a short-tailed shrew that program participants variously identified as a vole, a mole, a shrew and, facetiously, a "volemoleshrew." He argued that a "whole bunch" of marvelous small mammals could benefit from some conservation assistance - if only we knew what they are.
- Be creative. Amber Roth, a doctoral student who led one of the tours, had a great insight into woodland management: "It's a science, but it's also an art." No two properties are alike, and every property has multiple options as to what can be done. There is no wrong way except that of a landowner who doesn't want to do anything with the land but own it. In that case: boo, hiss.