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It could take 10 years for Wisconsin to recover from the violent July wind storm that wrecked northern forests

October 28, 2019

Larry Parnass

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/The Berkshire Eagle

When dawn came July 20, residents of northern Wisconsin counties found a changed land: hundreds of thousands of trees leveled or twisted by 100-mph winds. 

“You walked out the next morning and just stood there,” said Carla Van Camp, town chair in the Oconto County community of Townsend. “My grandchildren will never see the beauty that we lost in that one night.”

But future generations may well hear about the 2019 derecho, the powerful storm that swept across northern Wisconsin at dusk one summer night, jack-hammering forests with massive downdrafts known as macrobursts.

An aerial view of damage to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest west of Highway 32, about four miles south of the town of Lakewood in Oconto County in northern Wisconsin. (Photo: John Lampereur / U.S. Forest Service)

Their devastation remains topic No. 1 across Oconto and Langlade counties. As repairs and cleanups continue three months later, officials who manage federal, state and county forests still labor to grasp the extent of damage. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that at least 63,000 acres of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest were affected — a land area larger than the city of Milwaukee. 

That impact doesn’t include blowdowns in state and county forests in the area, all of which have sent timber and pulpwood prices tumbling due to oversupply, taxing the ability of forest managers to get salvage wood to market before it spoils.

In early August, the state Department of Natural Resources, using initial field and aerial surveys, pegged the damage at more than 250,000 acres — that’s 390 square miles — including 14,577 acres of state land and 53,647 acres of private land open for public recreation. 

Barron and Polk counties in northwest Wisconsin were also badly hit, with spotty storm damage in Wood, Portage and Waupaca counties west of Green Bay. 

Richard Lietz, Oconto Falls team leader for the state DNR’s Division of Forestry, has walked battered woodlands with private landowners, offering advice. “It’s a lot to take in. It comes as quite a shock,” he said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people that are affected.” 

John Lampereur, a U.S. Forest Service staff member in the Lakewood/Laona Ranger District, calls the storm a once-in-a-career event. After seeing tangled mounds of jack-strawed trees, some in piles 15-feet deep, Lampereur made a prediction. 

“I told my wife. ‘This is going to change everything. We’re going to be working on this for 10 years,’” he said. 

While much of that reforestation work will happen unseen, deep in the Chequamegon-Nicolet, the impact will be felt in federal, state and county budgets in years to come, as timber sales bring in less revenue.

Kevin Hamann, administrative coordinator for Oconto County, said a timber sale that was expected to fetch a $300,000 bid before the storm, instead brought $150,000 because of oversupply and damaged wood conditions. “Some of these sales we’re losing half the value,” he said. 

Hamann estimates that up to 25,000 acres of land owned by the county were affected. Some tracts lie beyond wetlands that must freeze before people can get in to study conditions. Half the county’s 43,000-acre land holdings sit in the northern area hit by the storm. 

“It’s just amazing the number of trees that are down. Some of them are ripped to shreds,” he said. “There are acres way in the back that we won’t get to in years. We’re going to have to put a lot more money in our budget for planting trees. … It’s going to take a long time getting this stuff done.”

No one died in the storms, officials say, though at least one man was killed, and others were injured, in cleanup accidents. The Forest Service heard accounts of people who dove into lakes and clung to rocks, desperate for shelter.

Chainsaw serenade
For residents, memories of the storm remain fresh. 

Dan Guendert, who lives in Mountain, says it took three people half a day, using chainsaws, to reopen his 150-foot driveway. “The sound of chainsaws was constant for the next month,” he said. More than 50,000 customers lost power.

Cathy Lindeman weathered the storm in her home on Archibald Lake in Townsend. It took six and a half days to get power back. “It’s hard to get it back to normal again. So overwhelming,” she said. 

On Star Lake, Karen Baye found herself trapped by fallen timber, later spending $2,500 to remove trees that fell on her property and damaged her home. “We were rescued because we couldn’t get out of the house. You couldn’t move any place,” she said. A pontoon boat ferried her across Star Lake. 

“I’m sure there were stories like that all over the place,” said Greyling R. Brandt, the Forest Service staffer helping to lead the storm response. “It’s a pretty big, wide-scale mess.”

Troy Bollinger, left, and Breanne Durovic, volunteers with Team Rubicon, work in early October to clear the sides of a U.S. Forest Service road that doubles as a snowmobile trail inside the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The area was devastated by windstorms July 19 and 20. Reopening snowmobile trails is considered vital to the rural region's economy.  (Photo: Larry Parnass / For the Journal Sentinel)

The storm delivered the worst damage to the region since a 2007 tornado cut a half-mile swath through the region from the southwest, its path crossed by this summer’s storm in northern Oconto County. 

Dick Booth, a supervisor in the Town of Riverview, lost his home and outbuildings in the 2007 tornado, emerging from his cellar to find seven of his horses maimed by flying debris. He loaded a gun and went horse by horse to end their suffering.

“I thought that was bad, but this was four times worse,” Booth said of this summer’s blowdown.

While many trees fell toward the southeast, the route of the squall line, others dropped in confounding directions, fanned out like poker hands. “We refer to it as a kind of atomic bomb, where everything goes out in all directions,” Booth said. “It’s just a tangled mess. No matter what road you went on in our township, it was impassable.”

“I would have said five times worse,” said Hamann, the Oconto County official, when told of Booth’s comparison of the July storm to the 2007 tornado. “There’s a lot more damaged. The tornado was just a swipe. This affected the entire northern county.”

Safety first
For the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a hospitality business as well as more than 360,000 acres of forest, the first duty was to free people trapped in its campgrounds. The storm hit during the busiest season. At the popular Boot Lake campground, trees fell around people camping in tents and RVs. This month, debris including flattened tents still lay around the campground. 

Mike Brown, a Forest Service district ranger, and Brandt, an assistant ranger, led a visitor through the campground, pointing out places falling trees nearly hit parked vehicles. They remain amazed no one was hurt. It took the service a day to cut a route up to a tower on Archibald Lake, enabling it to restore radio communications. Generators provided the only available power. 

Todd Skarban, the Oconto County sheriff, took charge of a unified command center as crews worked to restore power and reopen roads. That team has disbanded, returning authority to the townships.

With public safety restored, Brandt’s team turned its focus to determining the scope of damage, particularly through aerial images. Satellite photos told only part of the story, because clouds partially obstructed views. As weeks passed, other photos and on-the-ground surveys indicated damage was worse than first thought. The Forest Service has been scrutinizing images from flights and drones.

“The scale of this thing kept getting bigger and bigger,” said Brandt. “Until we get imagery, we really don’t know the extent of it. It’s a mixed bag out there and we can’t get everywhere to see it.”

Random damage
Unlike a typical tornado’s defined path of damage, the July storm’s winds struck randomly, slamming down from towering thunderstorm clouds. Forest Service crews have found wooded acres intact beside heavy damage. “And then 10 feet outside of that it’s completely leveled,” Brandt said. “This thing, it’s everywhere.” 

The National Weather Service received unofficial reports of winds topping 115 mph, but because its own instruments were not in the rural area, it hasn’t verified those readings. But there is no doubt about the force.

“We’re certain that winds 90 to 100 mph were felt at the surface,” said Eugene Brusky, science and operations officer with the service’s Green Bay office. “They’re very persistent winds. It just pushes that air right down to the ground.”

Hundreds of miles of Forest Service roads lace through the area. But even as they reopen, Brandt and his colleagues aren’t able to get into backwoods areas because of fallen trees. 

Trees sheared off at heights of 10 to 15 feet are a common sight in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest following a severe windstorm July 19 and a smaller storm the next morning.  (Photo: Larry Parnass / For the Journal Sentinel)
Traveling into one of the more remote sections, the Jones Springs area, Brandt had a hard time finding a parking area he has used. “It’s just amazing how much it’s changed.” 

People who endured the storm in that part of the forest emerged with accounts of a cold, wet night.

“They told us how they actually jumped in the lake and they were hiding behind rocks just because their whole site just had fallen in on itself,” Brandt said of backwoods campers. “They spent the night out there. They were just in the lake, and no longer had shelter. So they had to weather the storm out in the open, submerged.” 

Risks remain
Along with losing values in its timber sales, the Forest Service fears that when leaves come off remaining deciduous trees, sunlight will dry out fallen trees, limbs and leaves, increasing the likelihood of forest fires, especially in areas close to vacation homes.

At the same time, townships in Oconto and Langlade counties are racing to clear damaged trees along roads, knowing the first heavy snows could bring them down into travel lanes, once again creating travel hazards. 

The Forest Service met this month with officials in a half-dozen affected townships. Road safety is high on the agenda.

Van Camp, the Townsend official, says she’s told her road crew to expect damaged trees to keep falling for several years. The crew continues to clear along roads. 

“We have to widen them because our snows are coming, just to have someplace to push snow,” she said. “Anything that didn’t come down in the storm is falling now.”

“This is costing towns awesome money,” said Booth, the Riverview supervisor. “We’re still hauling brush and trees.”

Apart from public safety concerns, the Forest Service had to reopen many of its ongoing timber sale contracts. They approached winning bidders with new terms — and brought bad news about the condition of the timber that logging companies had arranged to buy. 

Brown, the Lakewood district ranger, said that in some cases, partial harvests on timber lots have been converted to clear cuts. Existing forest management plans came off the shelf for review and revision. 

“We've got a big plan we're working on,” said Brown. “Now we have many areas that are going to be set back to zero. Many of our plans have been changed.”

For instance, rather than mark individual trees for cutting, the service is allowing loggers to operate within an area designated by GPS coordinates and to pile logs along access roads, in stacks known as “decks.” The service then calculates volume of wood from those piles.

Forestry plans devised over the coming year will be subjected to environmental reviews in connection with the National Environmental Policy Act, a Nixon-era law from which Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., are seeking exemptions. 

‘Huge hit’
Mark Dilley, the Forest Service’s timber sales specialist, said the dollar value of contracts for standing trees has fallen as much as 80%. “It’s a huge hit,” he said. 

Even standing trees are suspect, from a lumber mill’s point of view. Fibers in their trunks may have been twisted by wind, making them unusable as saw logs. The damaged trees are all future pulpwood now, Dilley said, their value uncertain.

As it reworks timber contracts, the service is consigning any standing tree with more than a 10-degree lean to be cut. That includes “sprung” trees, those whose root systems were unearthed by the wind. Such damage doesn’t show up well on aerial photos.

“The market’s going to tell us,” Dilley said of the wood’s value. “There’s going to be a lot hitting the market at the same time. They’re leery of taking too much wood on. It’s a wait-and-see game right now.”

Depending on the type of tree, logs knocked down in storms can quickly lose value — in as little as three weeks due to insect infestations and staining from fungi.

Breanne Durovic and Rick Kolomay, both of the nonprofit Team Rubicon, chart the next day's goals as volunteers worked to clear the edges of a snowmobile trail of fallen trees in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The area was devastated by windstorms July 19 and 20. Reopening snowmobile trails is considered vital to the rural region's economy. (Photo: Larry Parnass / For the Journal Sentinel)

Lampereur, the Lakewood district’s expert on forest management, estimates that at least 10,000 acres of forest saw complete blowdown. 

“The scale of it is so big that you feel powerless to effect what you consider meaningful change,” he said. “We’re going to do our best. To say that we are going to clean up 50,000 acres, it’s not happening.”

Simply put, there is too much wood for the region’s forest-products industry to handle, even in a state that ranks in the top 10 in this sector. 

“We’re only going to be able to absorb so much,” Lampereur said of forest products going onto the market as a result of the storm. “We’re kind of a can-do bunch. It’s hard to swallow your pride and say we’re not going to be able to do it all.”

Given the enormity of change the storm delivered, Lampereur’s team is revisiting plans it created for tracts of the Chequamegon-Nicolet, turning some thinnings into more dramatic cuts, mindful of fire risks. He’s the one who predicted this work will take a decade.

“It’s the reforestation that goes on and on and on,” he said. 

Lampereur isn’t the only one adjusting to that time frame. “Now we’re in that marathon part of it,” said Brandt. 

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