Listen or read along as the foundation’s Program Director Steve Swenson and Site Manager Arik Duhr discuss the historical and ecological significance of thinning the Leopold pine stands.
[Steve Swenson] In the winter of 2005-2006, we harvested about 500 red and white pine. Our forester concluded the annual growth rings were only about 1/16 of an inch, whereas healthy trees should have annual growth rings of 3/16 of an inch. Trees with low vigor, as these were, are susceptible to disease that otherwise would not affect a healthy tree. The trees were overcrowded and needed thinning.
With our forester, we put together a plan for a harvest and presented it to the Leopold family. One of Aldo and Estella’s children, Carl Leopold, said: “Well, alternatively, we could cut no trees down.” Carl was a professor of plant physiology at Cornell. He knew a dying tree when he saw it, but it was his relationship to these trees that went way beyond his knowledge of science. As a young man, he had lovingly helped plant and water these trees.
What helped the family get over the hump and finally feel comfortable with the change was the fact that we would use the wood in a meaningful way. The timber was to be used in the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, literally putting a roof over their father’s idea of a land ethic. Of the 500 pines harvested, 92% of the material made it into the building, accounting for major structural framing, wall paneling, and trim. The volume totaled just under 20,000 board feet. The harvest was third party certified as sustainable through the Forest Stewardship Council and won the Council’s Project of the Year Award.
The foresters told us that once the remaining crowns started to touch again, the pines are ready for another thinning.
[Arik Duhr] One of stewardship’s favorite places to work on the Leopold property is anywhere near the Shack, and around 2021, it became evident while we were working in the field that all of the pine trees were due for a thinning. So, in the spring of 2023, we began that thinning.
For all the hard work of removing pine trees, we were really excited to be able to utilize the materials that were left behind. Aldo Leopold and family were very resourceful. Any wood that they would find after a flooding event on the Wisconsin River was an opportunity to utilize that wood some way around the Shack. One of the favorite items that Leopold built was a Leopold bench. The Leopold bench works wonderful for birding. They are simple in their nature, meant to be built from both two by sixes and two by eights.
Most every piece of the material that we removed from the pine thinning will be utilized for Leopold benches. Through the Leopold benches and the extended life of these pines, we can carry on the Leopold family’s legacy and connect you directly to their inspiring history.
The development of this self-guided tour was funded in part by:
The Community Foundation of South Central Wisconsin
Sauk County Extension Education, Arts & Culture Committee and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin
Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wisconsin Humanities strengthens our democracy through educational and cultural programs that build connections and understanding among people of all backgrounds and beliefs throughout the state.