Near Spring Green in the Southwestern corner of Wisconsin, before Europeans settled in the area, there used to be a vast oak savannah home to over 300 prairie plant species. That kind of biodiversity is now long gone in the wake of agricultural cultivation. However, co-ops are leading the movement to restore forests using sustainable management practices, not only in Wisconsin, but around the nation and in Canada. Cooperative Development Services (CDS) has been a critical part of this initiative, helping pioneer a movement on behalf of sustainable woods.
Three years ago a forester from Spring Green contacted CDS about helping with the establishment of a sustainable woods co-op organized by landowners who wanted an alternative to conventional forest management practices that ruin forests for long-term growth, as well as yield low prices for harvested wood. Those landowners who chose not to participate in that system faced problems with deteriorating and overgrown forests that choked out good hardwood. Landowners felt as though they had no good choices until they learned about sustainable woods management.
Shortly thereafter, the Sustainable Woods Co-op in Lone Rock, Wis., incorporated as a cooperative with the help of CDS, Community Forestry Resource Center and the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Since then the co-op has offered sustainable wood products to commercial enterprises and homeowners, including flooring, paneling, decking and more. The co-op was also recently granted $300,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue to develop the market for sustainable wood products in collaboration with two other sustainable forest co-ops in Wisconsin.
The movement to form sustainable woods co-ops has grown tremendously in the intervening years. Isaac Nadeau, a researcher with CDS, noted there are now approximately 14 woods co-ops and associations in various stages of formation in the upper Midwest and about 10 in the Northeast. Sustainable Woods is the largest co-op so far, with 150 members and a cumulative 20,000 acres of land. Warren Gaskill, the board president of Sustainable Woods said, “ For us the co-op framework was an important way to go forward. It’s a win-win situation.” Gaskill cited the reasons: the landowner can manage forests better as well as get a premium price for their wood. He added, “It’s also an important alternative for the rural economy. Instead of selling the land for some house, they can get income and improve the woods.”
Sustainable forestry involves taking an all-encompassing view of the land, plants, wildlife and recreational uses. Sustainable woods harvesting is carried out in a way that doesn’t damage property, a practice that helps the land continue to be a renewable resource. Some members of the Sustainable Woods Co-op, for instance, are undertaking prairie restoration on their land too.
Co-op members are learning about the advantages of these techniques, many of them established by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international group that sets standards for sustainable forestry, in order to be Smartwood-certified. All the wood sold by the Sustainable Woods Co-op is certified.
Since many landowners are still learning about sustainable forestry, the first order of business for all the co-ops that have formed has been education of landowners and consumers. “CDS is helping us with this,” said Gaskill, noting that many of the resources (expertise, alliances with forest services, funding) that would help expand the co-op were already in place with CDS, ready for the woods co-op movement to tap into. In October 2000, CDShosted a conference in Madison, Wisc. that brought in over 100 people from the U.S. and Canada. “That was a galvanizing point,” said Nadeau, “People could see that they were part of a bigger movement.” Another conference is planned for early this year in Massachusetts.
Ultimately, the sustainable woods co-ops are faced with forging new territory, creating a new market. As word gets out, demand for the wood increases. The Sustainable Woods Co-op virtually tripled their business last year. Still, it’s tough to be on the cutting edge of a new market. These co-ops have their work cut out for them, so to speak, in terms of education, marketing, getting certified, as well as setting up sawmills. The development of the movement has been exciting to watch said Nadeau, seeing something form out of thin air by virtue of cooperation, “Prior to 1998 there was nothing like this in the U.S.”