Stopping by Working Woods on a Snowy Evening

A poem about change in forest ownership in Wisconsin and the ramifications for conservation, recreation, and more. (Click images to enlarge.)

Cross-country skiing in a northern Wisconsin hardwood forest

Whose woods these are I think I know,

their house is in a city though;1

They will not see me stopping here

to watch their profits slowly grow.2

Recently harvested private land in Oneida County, Wisconsin open to public recreation

My GPS must think it queer,

no public lands show up near here,3

But the owner has less tax to pay,

to let me hike and shoot at deer.4

Privately-owned Wisconsin forest road posted against trespassing

Who are these owners, faraway?

And how long are they going to stay?

How do they manage, absentee?5

And will they let me walk this way?

Land for sale by land managers for a TIMO near Tomahawk, Wisconsin

These lands were owned by companies

Who once made paper from the trees,

They sold their woods in one decade,6

To investors called TIMOs and REITs 7

Logs harvested on investor-owned forestland in northern Wisconsin

Whose other lands are up in Maine,

New York, Belize, and Uruguay,8

With contracts set and workers few,

They’re managed for investor gain.9

Logging operation in Langlade County, Wisconsin

But are these owners really new?

(ask Cornell how its endowment grew)10

Their strategy is simply planned:

Buy low, sell high, and keep costs few.

A residential lot for sale on former paper company land in Oneida County, Wisconsin

When mills controlled most forest stands

they used them for their own demand,

But now the pressure starts to grow,

To harvest now or sell the land.

A new residence located in a red pine plantation on former paper company land in Oneida County, Wisconsin

Trees aren’t risky, but they grow slow.11

They’re here for now, but soon may go.

What will come next, and who decides,

a golf course, farm, or second home?

American Redstart female nesting on private forestland in Oneida County, Wisconsin

Will easements help to stem the tide,

or slow the timber mills’ decline?12

Are carbon, access, rare species,

the products they will sell in time?13

Snow-covered woods in northern Wisconsin

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

but they have fiduciary promises to keep

and things are changing underneath,

with consequences for more than trees…

Featured Image: Snow-covered woods in northern Wisconsin. All photographs by Andrew L’Roe.

Andrew L’Roe is a PhD student in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on current private forestland ownership, property rights, and conservation programs. Contact. Website.

End
  1. The largest private landowners in the US are publicly traded timber Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and investors through Timberland Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs). In the last two decades they purchased nearly all of the land that was owned by industrial paper and lumber companies. 

  2. Land ownership became less appealing to mill owners because of accounting changes and debt levels, and more appealing to investors because of changes in investing rules and a desire to put money in investments that weren’t correlated with the stock market. Timberland investments are generally expected to earn about 5 to 8% a year in returns from timber harvesting, land sales, recreational leases, etc. 

  3. Wisconsin has a lot of public land, but it also has quite a bit of accessible private forestland if you’re looking for places to hike, hunt, or ski that are a bit off of the normal route. 

  4. Nearly all of the forestland still owned by investors is enrolled in the Managed Forest Law and Forest Crop Law programs, which reduce property taxes to less than $2 an acre if the owners allow recreational access. 

  5. Management is often contracted out to regional land management companies (like this one: http://www.steigerwaldt.com/) who further subcontract day-to-day activities to local logging contractors. 

  6. The largest landowners in Wisconsin for more than fifty years were paper companies, including Nekoosa, International Paper, Champion, and Wausau Paper, which began to rapidly sell their land in the early 2000’s (http://www.jsonline.com/business/wausau-paper-sells-82000-acres-of-timberland-pc3fkc6-135760953.html).  

  7. Nearly all of the forestland in Wisconsin and other parts of the US was purchased by Timberland Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). More about the characteristics of TIMOs and REITs here, in a nice report by Dovetail Partners. 

  8. Some TIMOs are managed by large financial institutions with millions of acres of commercial timberlands in the US, as well as Latin America, Europe and Africa (https://www.btgpactual.com/home_en/AssetManagement.aspx/Timberland).  

  9. The investors that provide the funds to purchase these forested lands can be located nearly anywhere, including other countries (http://www.atp.dk/en/atp-timberland-invest).  

  10. The Land Grant Act of 1862 allowed Cornell University to acquire 500,000 acres of valuable timberland in northern Wisconsin. Although most land grant universities quickly sold the federal tracts that had been allocated to them, Ezra Cornell held the land to allow it to appreciate. The eventual sale of the land yielded a five-million-dollar endowment and is regarded as one of the most successful episodes of land speculation in U.S. history. For more details, see here. 

  11. Sometimes they are a little risky—in late spring of 2013 a fire burned almost 7,500 acres of TIMO-owned land in Northwest Wisconsin. 

  12. Many states like Wisconsin have purchased working forest conservation easements (like this one) with help from the federal Forest Legacy Program to permanently limit development on thousands of acres of private forestland, while allowing continued timber production and public recreational access. 

  13. In August 2015, the first Wisconsin carbon project with California’s Cap and Trade Program was announced on investor-owned forestland. In many parts of the country, investor owners make a significant part of their returns from recreational leases. Landowners in Wisconsin generally don’t do this yet, because leasing isn’t allowed for land enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Law tax program. Investor landowners often have the largest remaining pieces of privately owned land and work with state and federal agencies to improve habitat for rare and threatened species. 

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