Beyond the chainsaw: A new look at Wisconsin’s loggers

Wisconsin logging firms are following the same trend as many other industries: Fewer, larger, and more mechanized. That’s according to a survey of owners of Wisconsin logging operations conducted last year by a team led by Mark Rickenbach, professor and extension specialist in the UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. He summarizes the results in a recent blog post and in this interview with CALS podscaster Sevie Kenyon. The survey, conducted in early 2011, is a followup  to one done in 2004.

Among the findings:

  • Overall production is steady, but harvests are more intensive. Average harvest per logging firm was 5,849 cords in 2003 and 6,893 cords in 2010, but the average volume per acre rose from 12 cords in 2003 to 15 cords in 2010.
  • About two-thirds (62 percent) of the loggers’ reported timber harvest comes from private forests, followed by county forests (17 percent), industrial forests (12 percent), national forests (4 percent), state forests (3 percent) and tribal land (1 percent). That’s roughly the same distribution as in 2003.
  • Asked to describe their profitability, operators’ most common response (38 percent)  was “broke even,” followed by “good” (30 percent), “poor” (22 percent), “very poor” (10 percent) and “excellent” (1 percent.)
  • Capital investment hasn’t changed. Median investment per firm in 2010 dollars was $223,000 per firm in 2010 vs. $202,000 in 2003. But that varies considerably depending on mechanization. Median 2010 investment for a chainsaw-based operation (about a third of the state’s logging firms) was $60,000, vs. $480,000 for mechanized operations. Fifteen percent of firms reported investments of $1 million or more in 2010, up from 10 percent in 2003.
  • Wisconsin had 20 percent fewer logging firms in 2010 than in 2003. The earlier survey foretold this. In 2003, 22 percent of operators said they’d be out of business within five years. This level of attition will continue, the new survey indicates. Among 2011 respondents, 21 percent said they’d be out of  business in five years, about two-thirds due to retirement, the rest because of economic difficulties.
  • Retaining and attracting new loggers remains a challenge. Current firms are hiring more workers. Just over half of the state’s logging firms have employees, up from about a third in 2003. On average, firms employ 2.8 workers, up from 1.7 in 2003.