Tree harvest up but advocates want more changes

File photo (WLUK)

APPLETON (AP) - The amount of timber harvested from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest rose 6 percent last year, but some sawmill owners and others who want to maintain or even increase the harvest say the region's struggling economy needs more help.

Some 63.2 million board feet of wood were cut last year, up from 59.7 million board feet the previous year, Post-Crescent Media reported. The increase has given the regional economy a boost, but not everyone is pleased with the modest pace of progress.

Edward Piontek, who owns the Forest Sawmill in Wabeno, said the increase in harvesting has been enough to keep his four employees busy, but it's not enough to justify hiring more workers. His sawmill once had more than 30 workers.

Forestry officials expect another modest increase in the volume of this year's timber harvest. But Piontek said he's given up hope that the industry will ever bounce back in a meaningful way.

"There's no future in it anymore," he said.

The 1.5 million-acre forest is under federal control. Two Republican congressmen have proposed bills that would allow the state to increase how much timber is harvested - measures opposed by environmental groups that don't want to see the lands overharvested.

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Wausau introduced one of the bills in May. It mandates that the U.S. Forest Service hit its annual allowable sale quantity or else forfeit management resources to state agencies.

"The state and counties have the resources and know-how to sustainably manage forest lands - management that is not currently taking place on federal forest lands," Duffy said.

A second bill by Rep. Reid Ribble of Sherwood also calls for a mandated minimum harvest level. That bill passed the House last year.

In Laona, about 40 miles east of Rhinelander, a lagging timber industry means a higher tax burden on local residents, said Laurie Asher, the administrator of the Laona School District.

"There just aren't any jobs," Asher said. "And when timber isn't being harvested at the rate it should be, it's a double whammy for us, because that means less revenue for the school district and higher taxes for everyone."