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Dry conditions help with timber harvest, county dam projects

Dry conditions in the region have helped area loggers with harvest projects in the county forest.

According to Forest Administrator Jake Walcisak, the dry conditions have allowed crews onto projects that would otherwise have been frozen-ground harvest areas because they are typically wet.

“We are very dry in the woods and that has allowed good productivity right now,” Walcisak said.

However, the report came with the warning that good times very likely won’t last as timber markets continue to be down from recent years. Compounding this has been the closure of mills in the state, which reduces the places where loggers can sell their products.

The need to look ahead was emphasized with the committee reviewing the annual forest work plan for the coming year and the review of the 2022 accomplishments.

According to Walcisak, the county is scheduled to harvest 451 acres in 2024, this is in line with the amount put out for bids in recent years and is under 3% of the total forest area of more than 17,000 acres.

“It is pretty cookie-cutter,” Walcisak said of the forest work plan for the coming year. He noted that the county has between 15-20 timber sales under contract at any given time. The sales generally range in size from 20-160 acres, averaging 9 sales being offered each year. A large portion of his office’s duties is working with loggers on sale compliance.

Committee chairman Scott Mildbrand raised the question of what happens if there are no bidders for the county’s projects. “What is your plan if you don’t get any bids?” he asked, characterizing the timber markets as having unprecedented poor prices for wood.

Walcisak said the prices now, while low, were not unprecedented, comparing them to what was seen in 2007-2008 right after the price spiked in 2006. That said, he noted they needed to be prepared for the likelihood that there may not be buyers for some sales.

He said they have already made some adjustments such as reducing the minimum bids and trying to include highervalue timber in with what may otherwise be lower value sales. “We do things to make sales more appetizing,” he said.

Walcisak has also reduced the expectations, projecting stumpage revenue of $250,000 to $300,000 in the coming year, a far cry from the record-setting $750,000 in revenue in 2022.

“Revenues will be down a fair bit,” Walcisak said.

Mildbrand noted that in the private sector he is hearing that some land owners are choosing to not do any harvesting this year because the sale prices are not worth it. He questioned if this was considered at the county level.

Walcisak said when it comes to forest management there is a different perspective for the private landowner and the county. He explained that the private landowner may only have the opportunity to cut their land maybe twice in the time they own it. By comparison, the county forest has been in place since 1935 and typically stays consistent riding the ebbs and flows of the markets.

“We are in it for the long game,” he said, noting that for his own land as a private landowner it makes sense to hold when the prices are low. He said the market prices have greater impact on public lands through decisions to not include more marginal stands in the harvest or through doing partial harvests rather than intensive harvests on stands.

This is one area where Walcisak noted a carbon credit sale program could help with supplementing forest revenues. He said that if the county went into a program they would maybe be looking at delaying harvest of an aspen stand from 45 years to 50 years.

Committee member Gary Beadles was more optimistic about prices coming up in the coming year.

“There will be a demand for building products,” Beadles said, making reference to damage caused by hurricanes and other natural disasters and that this will drive up the demand for things like OSB and plywood.

Walcisak was less optimistic of the impact this may have on stumpage revenues going forward because a number of loggers have wood that is harvested that they are sitting on waiting for markets to change.

He noted that for many of the sales on the books, the logger’s profit margins are thin to break even right now, and cautioned the committee to be prepared for lower logging revenues than they have seen.

Committee members approved the annual work plan and the achievement report from 2022. The work plan goes on to the full county board for formal approval at the October board session.

Dam updates

After years of planning, projects on two of the county’s three major dams are just about complete.

Walcisak reported that with the diversion pumps pulled out of Camp 8 dam and the work largely completed on the dam replacement project, it will be up to Mother Nature to refill the water levels in coming months.

He said that after doing dewatering to lower the water level to the main channel, the contractors broke ground on August 17 and were scheduled to be completed on September 1. “It was a fast turnaround,” he said.

“There might be a little equipment mobilization, but for all intents and purposes they were done yesterday (Aug. 31),” Walcisak said of the Camp 8 project.

He said that per state requirements they must maintain 5-10 gallons per minute of flow downstream on both Camp 8 and Chelsea Lake Dam. He noted this will result in a slow recharge of the lakes. Walcisak projected it would be next spring before the lake was back to its previous levels.

With the county working with local outdoors groups to do lake improvements to the recreation area, the additional time will be a plus giving time to work on fish habitat improvements with the installation of fish cribs and a new pier that will be installed.

In addition to Camp 8, Walcisak said work is wrapping up on Chelsea Lake Dam with final work expected to have occurred this week. Again, it will take time for the lake level to come back to the full level, although as Walcisak, noted the county had opted to spend the additional money through that project with temporary structures to keep the water level higher while work was being done.

Board member Bud Suckow, who is a resident on Chelsea Lake, expressed concern that the water levels appear lower than even what they should be. He noted that property owners there bought lakefront land. “We didn’t buy a muddy shoreline,” he said, noting he has been asked by residents if their property values would be adjusted since it was not the same lake they bought land on.

The final elevation of the lake is set at 1,531 feet. Walcisak explained that with 120 acres of surface area on the lake it will take time for it to recharge completely. He noted that one acre foot of water is 325,000 gallons. It was noted that with heat and lack of rain this summer lake levels are impacted due to evaporation and lack of groundwater. Walcisak noted that Miller Dam has some of the lowest levels he has seen this year.

In other business, committee members:

  Approved minor updates to the portion of the county code about the forestry department. The changes bring the county code more in line with how the county has been functioning and with changes in state laws. It will go to the full county board for action in October.

  Received an update on the land purchase approved at county board last month. The recording fees and survey were done and filed with the state. The sale is pending approval of state Knowles Nelson Stewardship funds which are set by the state’s joint finance committee. Action on that is expected in early October.

  Received an update on the carbon credit program for the county forest. Committee members received a copy of the nondisclosure agreement that was signed during the negotiation period. He noted the county’s attorney authorized the NDA during the negotiation period and that the terms of the agreement would be made public with discussion on if the county should be part of the program taking place in open session.