Loggers bring millions to western Wisconsin county

By Elizabeth Dohms

Leader-Telegram

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Lavon Martin might be in the woods all day, and only his wife would know.

It’s not uncommon for the 20-plus-year logging veteran to work in the forest by himself from about 9 a.m. until dusk, but he always makes sure to call his wife at noon to let her know he’s OK.

Similar to his brothers, Martin starting cutting wood when he was 14 years old as part of his family’s business, Martin’s Forestry, based in Boyd, with much of the work on Eau Claire County land. The Martins are part of a cohort of loggers who clear out selected trees in the county forest — an effort that last year raised $1 million in timber sales.

“It brings in a significant revenue to the county,” said Jody Gindt, the county’s parks and forest supervisor.

County data show timber sales generated almost $1.5 million annually in 2014 and 2015, Gindt said, noting that timber sale revenues go into the county’s general fund. That helps reduce the overall tax levy, or the amount raised from property taxes.

Not all profits go to the general fund, however. The state mandates the county pay out a 10 percent severance in lieu of taxes to towns on which county forests reside.

The County Board decided to increase that to 15 percent, and each town gets a portion based on how much acreage of county forest it has.

“This is all county forest,” Gindt told the Leader-Telegram . “There’s not people building on it or private ownership to tax them on.”

In 2016, 15 percent of the total revenue generated was $149,433. Of that, the town of Bridge Creek received $67,000, which amounts to about 45 percent.

That’s because about 45 percent of the county forest is in Bridge Creek. Other towns benefiting from county forest harvesting are Fairchild, Lincoln, Ludington, Seymour, Washington and Wilson.

When Lavon Martin first arrived on a sale in Eau Claire County for which his family’s business won the bid, he eyed up a spot to store the wood he’d soon be cutting.

In perfectly stacked rows, the logs were separated by size — limbs that will eventually become pulp were on the other end of the pile from the saw logs.

The portion of the tree closest to the stump becomes a saw log, the best quality wood and most expensive.

Bolts are cut from the middle of the trees and are turned into products such as pallets. The windy limb wood at the top of the tree become pulp and are sent to mills as close as Wausau.

Gindt said Eau Claire is lucky to have a contingent of Amish sawmills in Eau Claire and Clark counties.

“That helps us sell a ton of wood here,” he said. “A lot of these loggers utilize that resource, which helps us a ton because they can get rid of their product then.”

Through the county’s own inventory and WisFIRS, a statewide database with computer models of forests across the state, county foresters have a good idea about which stands are ready to cut, said Jake Tumm, a county forester.

A stand — a grouping of trees with similar characteristics such as age and species — is first flagged for management.

Eau Claire County typically manages its forest through thinning out the acreage and through regeneration done manually or naturally, which some species are capable of doing.

Of about 52,000 acres of county forest, more than 41,000 are managed by the Parks and Forest Department and active in timber sales.

Not all of it can be managed, because some of it is protected as wilderness, park boundaries and river corridors, to name a few.

The county’s goal is to harvest about 1,000 acres annually.

“The reason we do that is so we don’t over-harvest,” Tumm said. “That way we’re not taking more than what we can sustain.”

The actual amount of board feet and tons of pulp extracted from a sale varies, though. Much of it depends on the weather and the market.

The county sets a minimum price at which it will sell the species, and bids are then open to the county’s list of about 50 loggers, some of whom hail from as far east as Marathon County.

“They go through and bid what they feel they can pay and how much they want the sale,” Gindt said.

After the bidding process is over, the logger with the highest bid generally wins, so long as the chosen one is in good standing with the county.

The loggers have about two years to complete the job. They earn their money by selling wood to the mills — an exchange that’s entirely market dependent. They then pay the county from their earnings.

“We buy this wood and have a fixed price we agree to pay for it,” said Wendall Martin, brother of Lavon Martin. “It could be a year or two down the road before we actually get to it, and the pricing can change a fair bit from when we buy it to when we sell it.”

On a drive in northeastern Eau Claire County’s town of Wilson, Gindt points at an aspen cut, recalling working on it as a forester himself.

The twiggy trees, barely a few feet off the ground, are “babies,” Gindt said. The ones that have grown a bit more mature are “teens,” dwarfed by “grandpas” on oak ridges.

“You’ve got this young aspen for grouse and deer, and they have a little bit of brooding areas, and then you have the big oak stands that have acorns in them,” Gindt said. “This a cool wildlife cut here.”

Gindt said that without forestry work, much of the wildlife populations that call the county forest home wouldn’t be there.

“They would eat themselves out of home,” he said. “They need this young cover.”

Additionally, many of the trails enjoyed by those who use the county forests are created because of logging.

Management of the timber also creates jobs and provides the revenue boost to Eau Claire County that not all counties in Wisconsin can rely on.

“It’s a great resource,” Gindt said. “To just let it sit idle and not do any management on it would be horrible … This is a county forest. It’s a working forest.”

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Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/