Forest products industry very much alive, but different

Forest products industry very much alive, but different

Article by Leigh Presley, Agriculture Educator, Kenosha/Racine Counties
Originally published in the Kenosha News.

While things are starting to slow down for most farmers, harvest is just beginning for those who farm the forests.

As the ground firms up with frost, loggers hit the woodlands of Wisconsin to bring in the raw materials for paper, furniture, fuel and other wood products.

The forest products industry in our state is one steeped in history. Once the backbone of the economy of northern Wisconsin, logging and lumbering brought development to the more sparsely populated parts of our state.

Logging camps, lumber towns and sawmills dotted the landscape throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The lumber boom lasted as long as there were suitable trees for harvest, and poor forest management contributed to the decline of the industry. Big lumber companies sold off land and moved west, leaving behind traces of the golden days.

I grew up surrounded by pieces of this past, from the ghost town of Glandon down the road that once bustled with lumber men to the historic homes and philanthropic foundations built by lumber barons in the nearby city of Wausau.

I feel fortunate to have known two brothers in their 90s who told stories of their lively logging camp days while puffing on tobacco pipes in their tiny one-room shack.

Still thriving

These things remind me of Wisconsin’s timber heyday, but knowing people who still make a living from forest products is a reminder that the industry is still very much alive. It just looks much different.

Instead of lumber, it is paper, pulp and other wood product manufacturing that drive the industry. And its contribution to the economy shouldn’t be overlooked. According to the Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin is home to more than 1,200 forest products companies generating $24.7 billion in goods and services annually.

Our woodlands have changed as well since the lumber boom. After a long period of depletion, Wisconsin’s forest land area has steadily increased over the last 50 years, currently totaling 17.1 million acres and covering nearly half of the state.

Lumber barons no longer dominate ownership of forest lands. Harvested wood today originates from a mix of private and publicly owned lands, providing supplemental income for both types of owners.

And harvesting timber isn’t motivated solely by profit as it once was. Responsible timber harvest can help public and private owners meet several management goals, whether it be removing undesirable species or improving wildlife habitat.

Wisconsin has seen a lot of changes in the forestry industry over a relatively short period of time, and although the lumber baron days of unfettered harvests and unlimited profits have passed, a new — and hopefully more sustainable — form of farming forests is here.

To learn more about Wisconsin’s forestry industry, visit