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Wisconsin must think outside the box when it comes to forest products

October 17-23 is Forest Products week in Wisconsin.

It is a time to reflect on the important role the state’s forest-related industries play in keeping rural Wisconsin economically strong.

By the numbers, the economic impact of forest products in the region and state is impressive. The forest products industry in Wisconsin provides more than 64,000 full and part-time jobs and has a total industry output of $24.5 billion and value-added of $7.1 billion. It ranks 11th in terms of number of full-and part-time jobs, 9th in value-added, and 3rd in industry output in the state. Every ten jobs in the forest products industry support an additional thirteen jobs in other sectors in the state. Combining direct, indirect, and induced effect, the industry contributes over 140,000 jobs with an annual gross output of $38 billion.

Forest products industries, including value-added products such as windows and door manufacturing and paper making are the number one employers in 10 counties including regionally in Taylor, Rusk, Price, and Marathon counties. The industry accounts for among the top 10 employers in 31 counties including Chippewa and Clark counties in this region.

The annual week recognition is a time to celebrate the achievements of the forest products industry and praise the important role the state’s managed forests have in the overall economy. At the same time as Wisconsin celebrates what the forestry products industry has done for the state and its residents in the past, policy makers and industry leaders must be active in securing the industry’s role into the future.

Traditional logging operations continue to account for a significant portion of the state’s forest output. While a signifi cant amount of logs cut may end up in sawmills and end up in value-added products, a significant volume of particularly lower-grade lumber supplies the state’s paper mills. Shifting markets and the high cost of retooling plants to meet different types of paper making needs has seriously impacted timber markets.

While paper making remains strong, the writing is on the wall for the need to diversify forest product markets. With forest management plans looking decades in advance, forest managers and industry leaders must look outside the proverbial box to ensure forest crops and the jobs they support remain for years to come.

Forest managers must look to new markets in making management decisions such as actively planting red pine plantations in cutover areas to take advantage of the market for utility poles. Forest managers must also be willing to look at managing for such things as harvesting boughs for wreaths or setting aside stands to be leased to maple syrup producers.

The challenge of forest crops is that unlike corn or soy beans which take a few months to reach maturity, forests mature on a generational timeline. The best practices of past decades must yield to what will be needed for years to come.

Northern Wisconsin’s soils and climate are ideal for forest crops. Forest managers and policy makers must look to market trends and ensure that the state’s forests remain powerful generators of economic opportunity for generations to come.