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Harvesting for Habitat: Five Reasons Why We’re Cutting Trees in the Shadow of Leopold’s Shack

Driving down Levee Road this summer, you can’t help but notice some changes in the landscape. In his classic essay “Axe in Hand,” Leopold wrote, “I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.”

Timber Harvest Post - Good Oak

Leopold sawing the famous “Good Oak” at the Shack

This blog post will walk you through the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s own recent “axe in hand” decisions, and explain some of the main reasons we’ve decided to do a timber harvest on 167 acres of our floodplain forest.

1. We’re Improving Bird Habitat

A timber harvest on the Leopold Memorial Reserve will improve habitat for birds of high conservation value such as the redheaded woodpecker. (Photo credit: Jack Bartholmai)

A timber harvest on the Aldo Leopold Foundation Lands will improve habitat for birds of high conservation value such as the redheaded woodpecker. (Photo credit: Jack Bartholmai)

The harvest will advance the long-term management goals for the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA), which consists of 12,000 acres cooperatively managed through a partnership including the Wisconsin DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Riverside Farm, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation. The IBA provides critical breeding habitat for over 100 bird species that depend on the Wisconsin River floodplain and adjacent uplands.

The timber harvest on the Leopold Memorial Reserve is designed to increase the breeding potential of many bird species of high conservation value, including the redheaded woodpecker, blue-winged warbler, willow fly-catcher, and black-billed cuckoo. Cutting trees will open up the forest and promote oaks, hickories, as well as native grasses and wildflowers—creating an environment where these birds can thrive.

In addition to providing habitat for birds, the harvest will benefit other local wildlife. Deer browse on oak seedlings and acorns during much of the year. Turkeys frequent the open landscapes of savannas and oak woodlands for feeding and nesting. This type of habitat will also benefit small mammals, pollinators, and reptiles.

2. We’re Bringing Oak Back

Fire being used as a management tool for oak savanna on foundation land

In Aldo Leopold’s time, the landscape was predominately wetland, oak savanna, and prairie. Historically, these areas would have been kept open through natural disturbances like seasonal flooding, ice flows, and fires. With these forces no longer naturally shaping the land, grasslands and oak savannas have converted to forests. Oak savannas are characterized by large open-grown oaks in a grassland. Burr and white oaks were the species found in the drier upland savannas, and swamp white oak anchored the lowland savannas. Swamp white oak savannas are only found in floodplains of large river systems, which made them historically uncommon. They are now one of the rarest plant communities on Earth!

Today, active management is necessary to maintain the openness of oak savannas and prairies and the quality of the habitat for at-risk species like the birds we hope will benefit from our management. Excitingly, these birds serve as ambassadors for a host of other wildlife species also dependent on this kind of landscape.

3. We’re Stacking the Deck Against Invasives

Currently, Aldo Leopold Foundation interns control buckthorn with a very labor-intensive method, going plant to plant and treating each one individually with chemical. Prescribed fire will be a much more efficient management tool in the floodplain.

After the harvest is complete, our land stewardship fellows will manage the floodplain using fire to promote the growth of prairie plants while simultaneously discouraging the growth of invasive species.

Prescribed fire opens up the forest, promoting fire adapted plants and controlling brushy invasive species such as buckthorn, autumn olive, honeysuckle, black locust, and prickly ash. Currently, a large percentage of our Stewardship crew’s time and energy goes into invasive species control. By using fire as a partial control method for invasives, we will be able to redirect resources to other projects and to other parts of the property.

4. We’re Demonstrating Responsible Forestry

2006 LMR Harvest

Photo from the sustainably certified timber harvest completed in 2006 during the construction of the Leopold Center.

We want our timber harvest to be a reflection of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, so we are holding our crews to a high standard of sustainable forestry. The harvest is guided by our forest management plan prepared by professional foresters at the Kickapoo Woods Cooperative. The plan follows the guidelines of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Best Management Practices as well as Sustainable Forestry Initiative principles and guidelines, and all loggers are certified by the Forest Industry Safety and Training Alliance.

It is our goal to improve land health while working with Wisconsin’s forest products industry to build relationships essential to a sustainable future. The timber sale resulting from the harvest is being brokered by The Verso Corporation in Wisconsin Rapids, who will pulp most of the trees for paper.

This timber harvest is a great example of how conservation and industry can mutually benefit. We hope this project is a reflection of that philosophy.

5. We’re Continuing Leopold’s Legacy

Leopold also used fire as a management tool.

Leopold also used fire as a management tool.

In the foreword to A Sand County Almanac Leopold wrote, “On this sand farm in Wisconsin, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.” The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s land management efforts continue the work the Leopold Family began in 1935.

The decision to cut these trees is the culmination of nearly 20 years of investment in this landscape, consisting of conservation planning, invasive species control, and baseline data collection for birds, plants, and timber. Generations of stewardship fellows along with foundation staff have created a landscape ready for this moment.

Many of the lessons we have learned about responsible forest management in southwest Wisconsin over the years are outlined in My Healthy Woods: A Handbook for Family Woodland Owners, which was published in partnership with the American Forest Foundation as part of the My Wisconsin Woods initiative.

We invite you to watch as our own “signature on the land” unfolds. The foundation is hosting two free guided hikes this summer to share more information with the community about land stewardship efforts on the reserve. Join us!