Northwoods Forest History

  • Article

    The history of the northwoods forest can, from the perspective of current residents, be divided into three periods: Everything that went before the logging around the turn of the century, the logging era, and the development of new forest following the logging.

    Logging began in northern Wisconsin at about the middle of the nineteenth century, but started in the area around Star Lake with the arrival of the railroad and logging company in 1894. By 1910 it was, for all practical purposes, over. From the point of view of European Americans, that was the major event in Star Lake history. That story has been told in many books and other media, and is summarized with specific details relating to Star Lake at the topic No topic [logging the logging era].

    The history of the forest prior to the logging, that is prior to 1894 in the Star Lake area, is not well understood. There is little agreement as to exactly what it looked like when the loggers arrived, and even less as to how it got that way. The conventional wisdom is that this was a huge pine forest--mostly white pine--with giant trees just waiting to be cut. It has been generally assumed that it had looked very much like it did in 1894 for centuries prior to that, in other words that the forest in 1894 was the climax vegetation and reflected a stable ecosystem that would have continued had it not been for the invasion of the loggers at the turn of the century.

    That picture of the Star Lake forest is very unlikely: The image of massive amounts of mature white pine probably exceeds the reality by a huge amount. Further the state of the forest was probably not a climax vegetation, but a stage that evolved from prior conditions likely created by either Native Americans or cataclysmic forest fire. White pine is not shade tolerant but grows best with a nurse crop of aspen or birch. The extensive mature white pine forests of northern Wisconsin in the 19th century, which would have been 200 to 500 years old, suggest a cataclysmic event between the 14th and 17th centuries. Curtis, 1959

    In fact, it has been suggested that coupled with such an event, presumably an extensive forest fire, a significant shrinkage of the Native American population resulting from interface with European Americans, would have allowed the pine forest to mature in a way that was atypical of centuries which preceded it.

    The above are preliminary thoughts on the virgin forests of the area. Further explorations of current knowledge in this field will be noted here in the future.

    Detailed studies are available of the forests that have grown since the logging, but the picture of the landscape as the loggers left the region is less clear. We know that there were extensive fires around Star Lake following the logging., but they were not universal. The townsite, peninsula, and the area around the present North Star Lodge never burned. However, across Highway K from the present store one can see evidence in the form of firebreaks and charred stumps that indicate that fires came close to the town. Thus, as a starting point for the new forest we have unburned and burned land. The burning of the slash must have left almost completely denuded land, and that may have been typical of the unburned land as well. Certainly the area on the peninsula planted as the Star Lake Plantation was completely clear when planted.

    There is an interesting survey of the forest around Star Lake done in 1904 by J. J. Neuman, who was collecting Polyporaceae (a family of fungi) as an agent of the United States Bureau of Forestry. Newman, 1914 He surveyed in Vilas, Oneida and Ashland Counties. In Vilas "two townships north and west of Star Lake were studied, consisting largely of the Merrill Lumber Company's and Langely and Alderson's timber." Newman notes, "In the region around Star Lake the same kinds of trees (as Oneida County) were found, but the proportion of deciduous trees is greater. Birches, poplar and scarlet oak make up a very large part of the forest here. In some districts the forest is made up entirely of deciduous trees, with here and there a white or red pine and a few dwarfed firs. The swamps in this region are covered with spruce, tamarack and arbor vitae." He goes on to note, "Near Razorback Lake there is a little tamarack swamp of about twelve acres. There are many large trees here having diameters of over elever inches and ages of from eighty to one hundred and twenty years."

    Neuman continues to note, "In Oneida and Vilas counties the birch is nearly all defective except the young growth, which covers the cut-over areas." Regretably, this suggests the presence of old growth birch, but gives no hint of its extent. This suggests that the virgin forest had some level of birch, certainly needed as a seed source following the cut-over.

    Three things happened to the cut-over area: It was planted with trees, as for example the Star Lake Plantation, it was allowed to return to second growth forest, or it was cleared for agriculture. Since farming proved to be a total failure in this area, the farmed areas returned to second growth forest as well, except a decade or so later.

    Charles P. Forbes
    July 24, 2009
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