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The Forest Service, Not Industry, Owns The Most Productive Lands In The Lake States

In nearly all of the United States, forest industries own the best land for growing trees while National Forests occupy some of the least productive land. But the reverse is true in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, according to a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study.

The results may mean that the forest products industry – long a major employer in the region – has a limited potential to lead economic growth in the three states.

Researchers from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences studied the relationships between land ownership, the level of growing stock and net annual forest growth in 101 counties across Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“The 101 counties encompass most of the forested portion of the Lake States,” says Jeffrey Stier, an economist with the Department of Forest Ecology and Management who led the study. “These forestlands produce important raw materials and provide a potential basis for industrial expansion of wood products manufacturing in these largely rural counties.”

Stier, Kwang-Koo Kim and David Marcouiller – both with the Department of Urban and Regional Planning – published the study recently in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research.

U.S. Forest Service figures show that there are about 38.5 million acres of forestland in the three states. The forestland is nearly equally divided between private and public owners. The Forest Service manages almost 15 percent of the forested acreage in the region. Counties and states also are major forest landowners. Industrial forests cover about 8 percent of the forestland in the region. Non-industrial private owners and farmers control most of the privately held forestland.

Since forest industry land is tied directly to wood manufacturing activities, timber production is their prime objective, according to Stier. Meanwhile public forests traditionally manage for multiple uses, which include recreation, wildlife habitat, watershed protection, timber production and ecosystem function.

“Therefore,” Stier says, “you might expect industry to own the most productive lands and manage them intensively for timber, while the public might be expected to control land that is less productive for timber and managed less intensively for timber.”

Instead, the researchers found that forest industry land in the region is inherently less productive than the land owned by the Forest Service. “In fact, the Forest Service lands have a higher potential productivity for timber than those of all other public and private landowners,” Stier says. “We also found that the National Forests in the three-state area carry on average a slightly higher level of timber volume per acre on their lands than do other landowners in the region. At the same time, industry harvests more timber from their land than you”d expect given their relatively small ownership stake.

“As the management emphasis on Forest Service lands shifts away from timber production, the demand for wood will be displaced to other forestland in the region,” Stier predicts. “As a result, the forest products industry in the Lake States will likely face constraints on their sources for this raw material. This will lead to further increases in the price industry must pay for wood. Our results suggest that this will limit the extent to which development policies that focus on forest products can enhance economic growth in the region.”

The research was supported by state funding to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and a grant from the USDA”s McIntire-Stennis program.