The impacts of warmer winters and unpredictable conditions on a logging business

Scott Koerner works at Koerner Forest Products

Who are you/What is your role?

Log transport in Sothern Wisconsin. Photo credit: Tom Hill, Wisconsin DNR

I am a logging contractor based out of Oshkosh. I run eight cutting crews and nine log trucks and ship wood to hardwood sawmills and paper mills around the state. I am based in Southeastern Wisconsin.

What has been happening with your logging business?

Warmer winters are the biggest impact we’ve seen. We are always struggling with having enough frozen days to log and winters have been starting late recently. In 2020, the first hard frost wasn’t until the middle of February. And then, when it did get cold, it got really cold and it was too cold to work. Low, marshy areas where we need frost to work, never had frost. And that’s been pretty common in the last couple of years. We might get a little cold weather in the beginning of the year but never quite enough cold weather, prior to snow, to get frost in the areas that we need frost.

How this impacted your business?

The machines we work with are heavy, between 40,000 to 70,000 pounds per machine. We need a processor to cut and forwarder to get logs out. if the ground is wet instead of frozen, the machine will sink and not be able to operate. You could drive the machines on a crop field pretty much any time of the year but the marshy ground that we work in is just too soft and requires frozen ground.

Log collection in winter. Photo credit: Tom Hill, Wisconsin DNR

In Southeastern Wisconsin, any ground that can be farmed, is farmed. The only type of terrain we can harvest in is ground that’s too hilly or too wet to grow crops on. If it were good ground, you’d be growing corn. If you want to harvest timber, you have to go where the trees are, and the trees are on ground that is not suitable for farming.

How have you adapted to the lack of frozen ground? What can you do?

We put tracks over the tires to carry the machines over wetter soil, but on most of the ground we work on, it has to freeze to work. I have purchased extra equipment so I have two machines for each operator. This is not common practice. I will put one machine at a wet site, and not move it until the job is done.

Log pile in southern Wisconsin. Photo credit: Tom Hill, Wisconsin DNR

A lot of time what happens is we place machines in mid-December. We think “oh it’s cold, hopefully it’ll freeze, we’ll get some frost.” All of a sudden, a week later it’s fifty degrees and raining. So then obviously we can’t operate there and we don’t know when we’ll be able to operate there, so we spend the time and money to move the equipment, which oftentimes costs $1,000 to move. If I have to do that a number of times on a project, well then there goes the profit. That’s why I bought the extra equipment, which will allow me to have that operator be able to operate on two sites—one wet site, and one drier, year-round site. That allows for more operating time on these sites. If it happens to get cold, you don’t want to pull off from another job early to get to the wet site, but you may only have a few days where it’s cold enough to access that site. Having two sets of machinery means I can hit that window by not spending time to move the equipment.

What does the future look like for you?

One thing that will affect the future is the emerald ash borer. A lot of the ground we are trying to harvest now only grows ash, for the most part. Once the ash is gone, and we’re only a year or two away from that in southeastern Wisconsin, there will only be a few sites with stands that need to be harvested. Most of the ash in southeastern Wisconsin is dead already, and there’s only a year or two until it has no value, which is why I’m pushing so hard now. In the future, the need to get into these sites will go down because there won’t be trees there anymore.

But also, with current dry conditions, I am looking at accessing some sites that typically have to be frozen unless conditions are extremely dry. That’s another reason for the extra machinery. I can put it at a site and say “okay, I think this site is going to dry up sometime this summer.’ It might dry up for a couple days and we can get some work done, and then it rains an inch.

Not only do we have to deal with mother nature, there are other restrictions that push us into very small windows of time. When someone asks “I’d like to cut my woods, how long will it take to do?” I tell them it’s a two-year contract. We really only have a month here and a month there. So, a two-year contract really means two months. And then the stars have to align. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you lose a year.

How long have you been in the business? Has it changed?

I have been in this business for twenty-three years. Regulations, like the Natural Heritage Inventory, have changed, but so has the weather. We’ve been fortunate to not have a tremendous amount of snow recently, but we definitely don’t get the cold weather that we had been getting. Too much snow also slows the whole process down. There’s always been an issue with snow and frost, but typically at the end of November and early December, you were starting to get cold weather. But that’s not happening now.

Do you have hope for the future?

Absolutely. Trees are growing every day. The ash is a very unfortunate situation but we don’t know the full impact. We’re going to lose a lot of acres of forested land because there are a lot of acres that only grow ash. That’s true especially in Southern Wisconsin, but Northern Wisconsin has a lot of ash too. We are a decade away before emerald ash borer pretty much wipes the whole state out of ash, but in Southeastern Wisconsin, we’re there now. I don’t think anyone has a good handle on what the long term effects of that are going to be, but there are a lot of other tree species. There’s really no impact on upland sites where you have multiple hardwoods, just the lowland black and green ash swamps. It’s a nice tree but once it’s gone, it’s gone. I don’t see those sites recovering all that well.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Scott Koerner
5628 W. Fisk Ave.
Oshkosh, WI 54904
(920) 572-0340
Koerner Forest Products