by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
February 15, 2024

An environmental group alleged that a logging operation in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) has violated its contract by clear cutting sections of the forest and working while the ground is unfrozen. The group called on the United States Forest Service’s (USFS) supervisor for the forest to immediately halt the operation. 

The timber sale is part of the larger Fourmile logging operation in the national forest, which drew complaints before it began from conservation groups concerned that the project was approved by the USFS under the administration of President Donald Trump without a proper environmental review. Last September, two dozen conservation groups called on the Biden Administration to halt the project. 

The groups said they were worried the project was moving forward to maximize profit from selling the timber to pulp markets rather than weighing the value of mature and old growth forests in mitigating climate change. 

“The Forest Service must correct course and suspend logging in the valuable Fourmile project area before they fell mature and possibly old-growth trees that are vital for our climate security,” Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said last fall. “The Forest Service faces a stark choice: confront the climate crisis or log these valuable trees for pulp. There is still time if they act now.”

The Sunfish timber sale is the first logging operation to take place as part of the Fourmile project. In a letter to CNNF Supervisor Jenn Youngblood, Olsen and the ELPC allege that the Sunfish sale has resulted in a clearcut of “several acres” despite the sale’s designation of the area for a more selective cutting. 

“As the chief officer for the CNNF, respectfully, please use the full authority of your position to take quick action to halt apparently illegal logging in the Eagle River-Florence District, and to perform a post-mortem study of the old-growth trees felled there and logging practices,” the letter states. “Time is of the essence, so please act swiftly to enforce the contract and protect the integrity of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.”

In the timber sale contract, loggers are not allowed to operate when the ground is unfrozen. Ground is considered frozen in the contract when there is more than 12 inches of compacted snow or more than six inches of frozen ground. Because of the state’s mild winter, there has not been much snow cover in the forest this year. Satellite images sent to the USFS show logging operations occurred when the temperatures rose above freezing. 

On a visit to the Sunfish site, conservation groups found evidence of logging when the ground was unfrozen with standing water and ruts left on logging roads. 

Logging on unfrozen ground can result in soil compaction, which reduces the ability of plants to grow in that spot, allows less water to filter through the soil and increases soil erosion.

“Prompt action is essential to address these violations before more damage is done to the forest,” the letter states. “The Forest Service should use its authority to halt logging and cancel the contract if necessary to protect the Fourmile area from further violations. The apparent violations occurred due to actions by the logger but, also, indicate lax supervision and enforcement. Compliance with timber sale contracts is essential to balancing the sustainable use and preservation of our national forests. If these provisions are not enforced, it raises the question of which provisions would be enforced.” 

The letter also alleges that on a visit to the site, Olsen saw thousands of stacked logs with diameters that would meet the USFS’ classification for old growth. By counting rings, one cut tree was calculated to be over 140 years old. The letter states that cutting these types of old trees goes directly against Biden administration policy to conserve them. 

“It was heartbreaking to see this destruction in a mature forest with old-growth characteristics, especially as it directly contradicts federal policy to conserve old growth and development,” the letter states. “Please provide the leadership we need to stop this apparently illegal logging and study the remains of Sunfish mature and old-growth trees.” 

Youngblood did not respond to a request for comment.

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