Ecological Forestry Alternatives to Clearcutting in Aspen Forests

Final Report for FNC12-885

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $22,141.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Charly Ray
Northern Ecosystem Services
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Project Information

Final Report

• Date of Report: 10/30/2014

This project originated with a landowner forestry cooperative, the Living Forest Cooperative (LFC), with over 200 members and 20,000 acres of forest land under management. The Cooperative dissolved at the beginning of the project, but lead researcher Charly Ray worked with SARE staff to develop a workplan to continue the project.

Charly Ray has 160 forested acres under management. Research under this project took place on other participating forest landowners' land. Charly Ray continues to practice forestry with private landowners, overseeing a few hundred acres each year.

In 2003 SARE awarded LFC grant FNC03-493 Promoting Sustainable Forestry which, among other things, established baseline plots in an aspen forest where alternative silviculture practices (not clearcutting) were implemented.

LFC was founded in 1999 and dedicated to practicing sustainable forestry on private lands, so yes we carried out sustainable practices. Practices include:
-retaining forest cover in critical watershed and habitat areas,
-creating wildlife debris piles on timber sales as habitat surrogates,
-managing for long lived native forest through selective, site specific silviculture,
-minimizing roads, landings, and rutting on timber sales,
-controlling invasive species,
-planting native conifers across the landscape.

1) Revisit 2003 project field sites, collect and analyze data.

2) Identify new field sites and collect baseline data.

3) Implement public outreach on project.

4) Establish a website for disseminating information on sustainable forestry practices.

5) Publication and dissemination of findings.

Project leader pulled together supporting team consisting of Jason Fischbach from local UW Extension and Jonathan Martin from Northland College to oversee and implement the workplan for project.

Conduct field work on established sites and run data through analysis. Present preliminary findings at a public meeting. Revisit protocol and research approach.

Reach out to interested public through meetings, field days, website and direct contact with resource professionals.

Identify best possible sites for additional field data. Collect data and add to data set.

Final data analysis and publication production.

With the demise of LFC the public outreach component of the project was more difficult to implement. Without an organization to carry on communication with an engaged group of landowners it was difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the project, though RESOURCE MANAGERS were very interested in the project. So the emphasis of the project outreach was shifted to this group as they have tremendous influence on the practices implemented by forest landowners and on significant public lands.


Charly Ray, Northern Ecosystem Services (producer and private forester) - project lead, public outreach, field data collection, website development, project administration.

Jason Fischbach, UW Extension Ashland/Bayfield Counties, Washburn, WI - research protocol, website development, preparation of findings reports and final publication.

Jonathan Martin, Northland College Professor of Forestry, Ashland, WI - research protocol, data analysis, publication development.

Gary Haughn, NRCS Ashland, WI - outreach mailings.

George Lulich, Mason, WI - producer with research site.

Terry Daulton, Mercer, WI - producer with research site (not in original proposal).

Julie Buckles, Northland College, Ashland, WI - outreach mailings, consulting on communications, press releases.

Our work looks at the long term implications of alternative forest practices. Our thesis is that it is possible, on some sites, to selectively harvest in aspen stands to capture value from timber while transitioning to a more diversified forest.  This project provided critical data points 7 years into our first site and 2 years into our second site. The results of these practices will play out over the course of decades, but it is critical to collect data points along the way. Preliminary findings support our alternative forestry practices.

Plots were established and inventoried for seedlings and saplings with tree heights and diameter at breast height (dbh) measured before and after a timber harvest to determine how the forest is responding to treatment. We are looking at several questions:
1 - Does the harvest lead to a shift in forest composition to a more diverse forest of mixed conifers and hardwoods?
2 - What is the remaining value/volume of the standing timber and how does it change over time?
3 -Is the resulting forest compatible with the standards of the Wisconsin Managed Forest Law program?

Results were a mixed bag with the data supporting our thesis but too much noise in the data to claim conclusions with great certainty. The trends look good and the data did answer some the primary questions:
1- The harvest did seem to shift the forest composition when looking at seedlings. Over time, the competition between seedlings and the overstory canopy will determine the result.
2 - The residual volume continued to grow overall despite the loss of a percentage of the standing timber.
3 - Post harvest stocking at 7 yrs. was adequate across the study area and on all but two of sixteen sites.

The results are in line with what we expected, but not strongly correlated enough for developing clear guidelines for foresters beyond "use your best professional judgment to site specifically thin aspen while retaining enough canopy to not bury the site in aspen regeneration." The point is, the practice seems to be working. In the future, the noise of the data needs to be addressed, possibly with more plots or a more rigorous identification of plots which will provide the data sought (avoiding edge effected plots, plots dominated by aspen or hardwoods, etc.).

Despite some noise in the data, this grant gave me the unique opportunity to re-visit a site to evaluate a silvicultural treatment and see what happened. And since what we are doing is based upon theory and not generally practiced in the industry nor researched, this study greatly validates our thesis and efforts to naturalize aspen forests. This research informs my ongoing efforts to implement these practices across the region.

Barriers have been chipped away at through this work, but only because we had Living Forest Cooperative to push it at the policy level. After the first SARE funded research (2003) the DNR developed a "Conversion strategy for Aspen in NW Wisconsin" which came directly out of LFCs lobbying efforts. During this study, natural resource managers were again engaged in the conversation about how to convert aspen covertypes to other more diverse forest types.

Time is the big disadvantage with forestry projects. This research could really use another sampling in 10 and 20 years.

With this project, I can now confidently assure landowners that the aspen left behind in an alternative aspen harvest will continue to grow, that there will be sufficient seedlings to maintain a forest, and likely we will be building a better and different forest for the future.

Impacts from this project have been percolating since the 2003 project with results working up into the policies of natural resource managers in the region. LFC pushed hard with the Wisconsin DNR to allow alternative practices in aspen forests and the DNR eventually developed a protocol specific to these requests. LFC also pushed the Forest Stewardship Council to consider the sustainability issues of clearcutting aspen on DNR managed lands and some modifications in DNR practices were implemented - specifically, the 20% residual canopy allowed in a clearcut is now allowed to be clumped as useful habitat rather than spread uniformly across the land.

The attendance at our presentation on findings included: Bayfield County Forest staff, a DNR forest ecologist, a Bureau of Indian Affairs Forester, and the Red Cliff Indian Reservation Forester representing direct or oversight responsibility for approximately 1 million acres of land in the region. These resource managers were engaged in a positive discussion about the project.

As with the research findings, economic and social impacts of this specific project are difficult to isolate. If time continues to verify the thesis that aspen forests may be productively managed without resorting to clearcutting as the primary management practice, several impacts are expected:
-watershed improvement through retention of forest cover,
-increased forest diversity as aspen monotypes convert to diverse mixed species and aged forests,
-economic diversity as a wider range of products becomes available from these practices,
-production of forest products from landowners who would refuse to clearcut their forests.

For the producer, the impacts could include:
-producing timber and income from forests which otherwise would not be harvested due to environmental or aesthetic concerns,
-enrolling lands into the state MFL program for 25 or 50 years to obtain a tax deferral where they may not have considered due to the clearcutting requirements - leading to more land managed and conserved for the mid-range as forest producing land
-diversifying forest products from single species to multiple over time,
-income distributed more evenly over time with repeated harvests rather than single total harvests with nothing for 50 or more years,

We used direct mailings, partnerships with supportive organizations (newsletters), advertising in local media (the "Shopper" that everyone reads), website, and field days to reach people.

A great partnership formed for outreach with the Chequamegon Bay Area Partnership (CBAP) to help get the word out to the exact people in the watershed of the study area. They helped promote and sponsor field days and included our work in their newsletter. As discussed above, the demise of LFC took out the best vehicle for reaching forest landowners - the CBAP group provided a good alternative.

The final UW Extension Research Bulletin will be made widely available through UW Extension and directly shared with interested parties and the natural resource managers in the area most influential in aspen management.

Further communication will be greatly facilitated by the website started through this grant which the UW Extension Agricultural Specialist is going to help oversee long term. This will provide a platform for not just sustainable forestry, but agriculture, wetland, watershed, grazing practices that are sustainable to be promoted and shared with landowners in the region. We hope the website is a lasting legacy for the area to share sustainable land management ideas, tools, and opportunities. The website is:

Some of our outreach products include the following and the uploaded files in this section of the SARE page:

Aspen Forestry Options: Presentation & Field Day

"Sustainable Landowner Options for Aspen Forests: Presentation and Field Day" to be held Sat., June 8, 9:30-12:30 starting at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center. Foresters Charly Ray at Northern Ecosystem Services and Jason Fischbach at UW-Extension will present initial findings from a seven-year research project looking at alternatives to clearcutting aspen and options for landowners looking to cut timber while maintaining a diverse forest. At 10:30 participants will carpool to the research site located on Fish Creek to look at results. For more information contact Charly Ray at (715) 813-0218 or the NGLVC on the day of the event at (715) 685-9983.

Tax Issues for Forest Landowners - Free Workshop October 5, Ashland

Contact: Charly Ray 715-813-0218, [email protected]

Landowners have a unique chance to hear from an expert on forestland tax considerations at a free workshop, October 5th at the AERC facility just west of Ashland. Geary Searfoss is a unique combination of trained forester and tax accountant who will speak to woodland owner tax issues. The workshop will begin at 1:30 pm and run until 3pm at the AERC facility at the corner of US 2 and State Farm Road, the former UW Research Station.

What constitutes a hobby enterprise and what are the tax implications of hobby losses? What logging expenses are deductible? How does income from a logging operation impact my taxes? Anyone who owns land, forests, actively farms or logs their property could benefit from this workshop.

With 25 years of tax experience and even more as a forester and forest landowner, Geary can speak to your questions about how to best manage your tax expenses from land management activities. Geary N. Searfoss CPA, LLC operates out of Winter, WI and may be reached at 715-266-8290.

This event is sponsored by Northern Ecosystem Services, LLC, an ecological consulting business from Washburn, with funding through USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Please contact Charly Ray with any questions regarding this event at 715-813-0218 or [email protected].

Having worked on a SARE grant in 2003 and now in 2011, I will say I am greatly appreciative of the program. I am impressed with your new accounting/reporting system which allows much simpler reporting. Please don't change that.

I also appreciate the flexibility in allowing this research to go forward despite the demise of the organization which had originally been central to the proposal.

Please continue to keep forestry in the mix of funding areas. Most farmlands in northern WI have 40 acres or more of forest land and it is often the last area that is managed sustainably.

Project Objectives:

In the long run, the findings from this research will provide producers with some real information about alternatives to clearcutting aspen and could lead to policy changes at the state level. Publication of research findings in a forestry journal would provide additional influence at the policy level.


Increased participation in sustainable forestry will be indicated through:

-attendance at field days,

-measuring traffic to website,

-coverage in local media, and

- producers engaging in EQIP or CSP or developing a management plan.


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  • Jason Fischbach


Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Website developed through project:

UW Extension Document

To view a video of this SARE project follow this link:

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.