U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) secretary Preston Cole spent over an hour in the Rhinelander area Aug. 6 listening to representatives from the federal and state government agencies dealing with forests, members of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, and other stakeholders explain what parts of the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) are working well and what changes they would like to see made to the federal program.
The GNA was created as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. It allows the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements with states so states may perform forest management activities on national forest lands.
The Wisconsin DNR was one of the first to enter into a GNA agreement with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. As part of the agreement, the DNR is authorized to contract with counties to assist with forest management activities on national forest land, with participating counties reimbursed for all authorized expenses through the state forestry funds.
Baldwin was a major backer of expanded authorities for forest management projects related to the Good Neighbor Authority, setting the stage for more growth in cooperative forest management, which passed Congress in 2018.
‘A win-win for everyone’
Baldwin started last week’s meeting by reminding those in attendance that when she moved from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate, she had to learn a lot about the forestry industry in a short period of time.
“Some of you stepped forward to show me around, whether it was a windshield tour or in the Ponsse (Harvesters), which I’ll do again any time you want,” Baldwin said of a previous visit.
She said the vibrant forestry industry in Wisconsin, compared to other states, has given her bragging rights in the Senate, although there are parts that are “tenuously hanging on.”
“We have some issues that I could have some involvement in at the federal level, but obviously we know that with the forest there is national, state, county, tribal, private, etc., so by definition it requires some cooperation and collaboration,” Baldwin said.
When the 2014 Farm Bill was being debated in the Senate, she was heavily involved in getting the GNA included, she noted. This is because she spent time working with forestry industry leaders in the Northwoods to learn ways the federal and state government could work together more cooperatively, she explained.
“The numbers have gone up and up and up, and that’s really exciting,” she said.
While she is proud of the accomplishments and how far the GNA has taken Wisconsin’s forestry industry, there is room for improvement, and that is what brought her to Rhinelander to meet with industry representatives, she added.
“I recognize that there is still challenges and next steps that we need to take,” she said, noting that Wisconsin’s use of the provisions of the GNA has served as an example for the rest of the country. She said many states have emulated the programs first put into place here.
Cole said he sees his role as coordinating the state and federal efforts. He also agreed the GNA has given the forestry industry a needed boast.
“The mills weren’t always humming in the Northwoods, and from that we had to learn some lessons. The Good Neighbor Authority provides the promise to us that if we act collaboratively with all our partners and the (Great Lakes Timber Professionals) Association and state government, it’s a win-win for everyone,” Cole said.
Some of the concerns the roundtable group shared with Baldwin and Cole were that some of the revenue sharing provisions of the GNA which were approved in 2018 were one year measures that when they phased out left counties and local school districts feeling abandoned. Another factor DNR forestry director Fred Souba, Jr. pointed out is while the state controls the revenue generated from the sale of timber harvested from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, those funds cannot be used on anything other than improvements to national forest lands. When it comes to revenue generated from timber sales on state forest lands, Souba said the DNR has found it is sometimes not in a position to best handle those funds effectively. He said the DNR may have another agency administer the funds, with oversight from the DNR.
During a press availability after the meeting, Baldwin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has started surveying the extensive damage caused when severe storms struck the area July 19. While there are costs thresholds, she said she hopes President Donald Trump will issue a disaster declaration.
She said she learned during the meeting both the forest service and DNR are working to get the downed wood to sawmills as quickly as possible since it loses value the longer it is on the ground.
Baldwin visits Blackwell
Prior to her stop in Rhinelander, Baldwin toured the Blackwell Job Corps Center in Laona, which was nearly closed earlier this year until she intervened.
Unlike Job Corp training centers, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, Blackwell is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture and the forest service, and focuses on youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, she explained.
“There is nothing like meeting with youth whose lives have literally been changing because of this opportunity,” she said. “I met a young woman who is getting into the trades and has an apprenticeship lined up who was homeless before getting this opportunity and had no idea what was going to come next.”
Baldwin said the skills the youth at Blackwell learn often give them a leg up on getting employment by the forest service or similar agencies.
“Whether it is forest firefighting, the ability to graduate in a trade with a career path, or be able to help on the local volunteer fire department, or be somebody who is able to be deployed to these extreme fire events we have seen in the United States,” Baldwin said. “I was very impressed, that expression ‘seeing is believing.’ I’ve heard a lot of good things.”
Baldwin said she heard from a lot of students when it was announced the center was closing.
“It was terrifying to them,” she said. “So we’re glad it’s back on track, but we do know there is going to be a thorough reevaluation, and I’m going to be fighting to make sure it is a fair evaluation, and that they are on a level playing field in terms of their peer centers in terms of continuing this programming.”
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected]