How COVID-19 Could Affect Grouse Habitat
It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a bit of a whirlwind and things haven’t gone as planned. With all the stay-at-home orders, shutdowns, and disruptions, you’re likely looking forward to the fall hunting season more than ever and getting back into the grouse woods to unwind a bit. Unfortunately, coronavirus and COVID-19 still have some potentially nasty consequences in store for timber markets and subsequently ruffed grouse, in the form of habitat impacts. Here’s how the two are surprisingly connected, and some potential ways that the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society (RGS & AWS) could help.
Recent Paper Mill Closures
Many businesses have struggled to keep their doors open during the spread of COVID-19 across the country. Unfortunately, two papers mills in Minnesota and Wisconsin also found themselves in that category this year. The Duluth Mill and Wisconsin Rapids Mill (both owned by Verso Corporation) have been experiencing a long-term decline in demand for their products, but the recent timber market conditions made the problem worse. The pandemic caused a sudden drop in the need for print paper, tipping the economic balance so off-kilter that closures were necessary.
Jon Steigerwaldt, Forest Conservation Director for the RGS & AWS in the Western Great Lakes, reiterated that the timber markets for these specific paper products (e.g., newspaper inserts, coupons, fliers, high gloss/heavy printing paper, etc.) has been in decline for a while. In fact, this was a discussion point at the Ruffed Grouse Symposium in February 2020. He mentioned that the Duluth Mill has actually been looking for ways to use post-consumer recycling to produce different paper products (such as that used for brown paper bags). Switching to recycled paper sources rather than processing raw forest products is primarily because there is a large demand from consumers and businesses to use recycled paper products as much as possible. While this is an admirable goal, it’s important to note that there is a limited number of times you can truly recycle paper products. As such, there is still a need for raw forest products to create virgin paper sources.
Resulting Habitat Impacts
Devastatingly, the Wisconsin Rapids Mill processed up to one quarter of the total timber market in the State of Wisconsin, which is a staggering amount any way you look at it. Aspen, conifer (e.g., mixed pine), and mixed hardwoods (e.g., maple, birch, ash) were all sent to this mill for processing into paper production. The Duluth Mill processed much less pulpwood, but primarily accepted spruce and balsam fir. These forest types all represent important grouse habitat at some point or another.
Besides the economic impacts and effects to mill employees and communities, this unfortunate situation also means that a huge amount of grouse habitat will be left in limbo for the foreseeable future. Steigerwaldt indicated this could be bad news for ruffed grouse and other young forest wildlife. Forestry operations like this help create thousands of acres of essential habitat for these species each year. Further, Minnesota and Wisconsin are able to support some of the nation’s most impressive grouse populations and hunting opportunities because of all the habitat created by clear-cuts, patch cutting, and thinning operations.
To put this in context, as it stands currently, the closure of the Wisconsin Rapids Mill means that roughly 50,000 acres (or an estimated 650,000 cords of wood) will now be left standing each year in Wisconsin, which would normally be harvested through regeneration cuts and thinning harvests. Meanwhile, closure of the Duluth Mill would reduce the timber harvests in Minnesota by about 5,000 acres/year. While RGS & AWS has been able to make a measurable impact to conservation and habitat projects in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the long-term habitat consequences due to the closure of these mills is frightening to consider.
Ripple Effects to Forest Markets Supply Chain
The baseline habitat impacts listed above are shocking enough, but the issue has multiple layers to it. Because of the mill closures and resulting lack of forestry management actions, there are ripple effects further down the supply chain that could hinder future forestry work (and thus habitat maintenance). For example, if 55,000 acres per year no longer need to be harvested between the two states, everything from logging operations to trucking to local county budgets could be impacted.
- Steigerwaldt estimated that up to 50 logging contractors could go out of business in the near future because of this. What’s more, well over 100 pieces of logging equipment would also likely be sold and taken out of production. Forestry machinery (e.g., fellers, skid steers, forwarders, trucks, and bulldozers) is expensive to finance, maintain, and insure. Without work to support the contractors, this equipment will disappear too.
- Of course, this also means there is less demand for trucking companies and machine operators who are a critical part of the forestry operation. A timber markets retraction like this can increase stumpage prices for remaining contractors, but a glut of people looking for this kind of work could mean a lot of competition as well.
- Because many county forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin are logged and the revenue supports local government operations, there will be less money in the budgets for county-run social projects, sheriff’s departments, and highway maintenance crews, and will likely increase taxes for citizens to help support these programs and activities.
- If the timber market conditions improve someday to the point where these two paper mills can reopen, the lack of contractors and equipment still in business will be a major bottleneck that is likely to impact timber markets recovery.
Under the RGS & AWS Model of Working Forests, there are ways that RGS & AWS could support some of the loggers and supply chain businesses in this uncertain time by providing a temporary solution. As an example, Jon mentioned how Forest Stewardship agreements allow timber harvests to occur on National Forest Lands, and a portion of the revenue is folded back into further non-commercial timber work, such as trail projects, alder shearing, or similar habitat projects at the community level. Currently, RGS & AWS is doing just that on the Chippewa National Forest where RGS & AWS has hired a private consulting forester to implement a timber sale on the ground, as well as hire a contractor to maintain approximately 50 miles of hunter walking trails (among other projects). While it is no replacement for the large-scale loss of two paper mills, these projects could create opportunities for some loggers and consulting foresters to diversify their businesses and stay afloat, in the hope that timber markets will improve post COVID-19.
In the long-term, there needs to be broader, landscape-level solutions to help support this industry. More advocacy is needed to educate consumers about the myriad ways that forest products benefit both them and wildlife through habitat creation. More timber markets research is needed to explore new uses for wood products. And additional support of the RGS & AWS Model of Working Forests is desperately needed to expand Forest Stewardship opportunities and keep forest industry professionals working and creating habitat. After all, forestry is still essential for all of us.