Wis. officials start work on timber clearing plan
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — State forestry officials said Tuesday they're moving ahead with a multi-front plan to salvage hundreds of thousands of downed trees across far northwestern Wisconsin that calls for using soldiers to clear debris, relaxing air pollution permits and raising weight limits on the region's roads for loggers.
Severe storms in July toppled trees over more than 130,000 acres in Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Polk and Washburn counties. The storms left about 2 million cords of wood on the ground, equivalent to a year's worth of logging.
The state is racing to help local governments clear the debris and the timber industry capitalize on the fallen trees before they rot or catch fire. But the cleanup presents multiple challenges, including how to motivate private landowners to clean up their property, how to transport so much wood to mills and how to avoid clogging the timber market with so much wood that prices plunge.
Gov. Scott Walker met with local leaders and timber industry representatives in Siren on Friday to brainstorm ideas. On Tuesday state Department of Natural Resources Chief Forester Paul DeLong said state officials have decided to move ahead on their initial plan.
The blueprint calls for using the Wisconsin National Guard to clear branches, logs and other debris from roadside right-of-ways to decrease the fire hazard and clear space for snow removal this winter. But that part of the plan still needs approval from the U.S. Department of Defense, DeLong said.
State officials also plan to talk with federal environmental officials about relaxing air quality standards to allow more pine emissions, allowing manufacturers to use more of the softwood, which comprises nearly a quarter of the downed trees and presents the most serious fire hazard, DeLong said.
The DNR is working with state transportation officials to identify roads and bridges where weight limits could be increased safely. Higher limits would allow loggers to load more trees on their trucks, enabling them to clear more timber faster.
Other parts of the plan call for expediting water permits for loggers looking to build bridges and fords to reach fallen timber faster, evaluating areas that could serve as holding areas for cleared timbered and using the state Economic Development Corporation's contacts to explore selling some of the wood in China, which would relieve the pressure the extra timber would place on Wisconsin markets.
The DNR already has been working to develop a long-term fire suppression plan, identifying areas where the agency could build fire breaks and assessing how to get fire-fighting equipment into the area. The agency also will implement an outreach program to connect landowners with contractors so they can clear their property.
DeLong stressed the plan is a start and things could change.
"If something doesn't work, we'll move on," he said.
Henry Schienebeck is the executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals, which represents loggers, truckers, sawmills, paper makers and others. He said the state's efforts should help.
"One thing doesn't fix it all," he said. "Ultimately, that wood's going to have to be cleaned up within a year. ... The whole objective right now is to get in there and get as much of it cleaned up as fast as you can."
Burnett County Supervisor Edgar Peterson said the sheer volume of debris has overwhelmed local governments' budgets. The town of Oakland, for instance, has had to take out a line of credit from a local bank to pay loggers to clear right-of-ways. He called the state's plan "a good deal."