Beneath the Bark: The policies and pressures surrounding trees – and what’s being done to manage them

Driving along the shaded, winding roads at the tip of the Door peninsula, or under the tight canopy near Whitefish Dunes, you can be forgiven if you fail to fully appreciate the deep and complex state and local institutions that help to manage such forests. 

These important ecosystems feel pressure from many sides – timber harvesting and making space for new development among them – but forests offer so many benefits to people near and far. It takes strong policies to strike the balance.

“Managed forests are healthy forests,” said Jake Schroeder, a forester for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Northeast Region. Schroeder’s domain includes Door, Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties. “If we don’t go in to manage some of these forests, we’ll be dealing with some degraded habitats.”

Management can mean many things, from targeting invasive species to clear cutting. Timber harvesting as a form of management is important to the state economy. According to the DNR, forestry and timber products support nearly 60,000 jobs in the state and contribute $23 billion to the state economy.

The paper mills of the Fox Valley and the dense forests of northern Wisconsin drive most of that impact, with northeast Wisconsin and Door County seeing significantly lower levels of employment in forestry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nonmetropolitan region of northeast Wisconsin (the smallest geography for which data are available), there are 300 people employed as either foresters or forest-conservation workers.

Schroeder said there is some commercial-scale timber harvesting in Door County that can take advantage of being relatively close to the mills around Green Bay. There are also a few smaller loggers in the area who keep the industry alive on the peninsula.

Absent large-scale logging and massive mills, Door County values its forests for many other reasons. They provide critical wildlife habitat, help improve water quality, store carbon, offer a playground for those who love the outdoors, and are simply beautiful to look at and rejuvenating to walk through. All of these benefits require sound management.

“Trees are living things, and they need room to grow,” said Nick Holmes, the tax law forestry specialist for the DNR. “Initially it might look scary to those folks driving by [who] see land [that] gets clear cut, but within two years, you’re seeing these resprouts that are going to be 10 or 15 feet tall. You can think of it as a long-term game here.”

The state’s most popular tool to play the long game is the Managed Forest Law (MFL), which gives landowners a significant reduction in their property taxes if they enter into a 25- or 50-year contract to manage their forest acres sustainably. The program, which began is 1985, now has nearly 3.5 million acres enrolled across the state. 

Landowners develop a management plan with the help of the DNR and a certified plan writer, which includes mandatory management practices throughout the contract period. Managed forest parcels also help the DNR to track and manage invasive species such as the emerald ash borer.

“Each plan is tailored to that landowner’s specific property,” Holmes said. “There may be scheduled timber harvesting or mandatory plantings to increase stock.”

In Door County, the MFL program is becoming more popular. There are 20,703 acres enrolled, with half of those acres added since 2009. Of those parcels, 2,402 acres are also open to the public for activities such as hunting – an add-on to the program that grants the landowner an extra property-tax deduction.

Development pressures create an additional challenge that MFL can help to mitigate. The division of forested properties into smaller parcels, or the construction of driveways, homes, and patios, can splinter the habitat and erase some of the benefits of a contiguous forest. 

MFL requires the parcel to be a minimum of 20 contiguous acres, and enrollment in the program follows the land, not the landowner. If the property is sold to someone else, the new owner will be required to uphold the remainder of the contract.

“It’s useful to think about the fact that it does go with the land,” said Skya Murphy, forest tax law policy specialist with the DNR. “It is a long-term commitment. The landowner has to be very involved and opt in.”

That commitment is partially enforced by penalties for withdrawal, including a tax to recoup the property taxes that the landowner would have otherwise paid.

Although foresters and conservationists may be optimistic that participation in the program is born out of a landowner’s passion for sustainably managed forests, Holmes said the tax benefits are a “pretty big carrot.” Still, if the amount the state loses in property-tax revenue from the program is less than the cost of actively managing 3.5 million acres – or watching habitats degrade, and forests splinter or lose their beauty – it’s worth it.

You can find MFL properties that are also open to public access at the DNR’s Open Parcel Viewer at