Forests of Wyalusing State Park

The following blog was emailed by Craig Hollingsworth, Forestry Office, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to a college student looking for information on the forests of Wyalusing State Park. The main focus of the question centered around the forests of Wyalusing State Park before the Industrial Revolution. Craig Hollingsworth gave his permission to republish and edit the information for the Friends of Wyalusing Blog.

Prior to the late 1800's there was no forest management on the land that is now Wyalusing State Park. Occasionally the land was burned for any of a variety of purposes. Fires, probably, occurred by accident. There were no controlled burns.

Before the 1800's, the only uses for tree logs were simple dug-out canoes. However, there is little archaeological evidence to suggest that dug-out canoes were built in this area. Evidence suggests bark was used from some trees for shelter cover. It was also used for medicine and for the chemicals that could be leached the bark. Tannin, for example, from oak bark, was used for tanning hides. Other bark was used to make string or rope. Small, pliable trees were used for building shelters. Wood was mostly used as fuel for fires.

The forests were also used as a food source. Acorns could have the tannins leached out and, thus, make good flour which, in turn, was used for baking. Animals could be trapped, shot and eaten. Animal parts were used for a variety of purposes. For example, Eagle feathers were valuable for trading and gifting. Feathers were used for decoration or display.

High places were used as 'burial places'. One can only imagine tree tops being used to enjoy the views or the confluence of the two rivers. Most likely, they were used as look-out points for enemies. There may not have been nearly as many trees there as we see now.

Since the late 1800's there has been tree harvesting as well as destruction over much of the area. Logs were were made into lumber. Much of the wood supply provided fuel for paddle-wheelers on the river. Some logs may have been used for mine timbers or for railroad ties. Harvested logs were tied together into rafts and floated to mills located nearby.

On the uplands and flat river bottoms, Europeans destroyed forests to make farmland and pastures. They burned the hillsides regularly, often annually, for grazing livestock. The burning was to kill brush and trees to make better pasture, and easier location of their livestock. The burning allowed the forests to thicken up, just the opposite of what they intended, and now we have huge areas of dense forest in the Wyalusing State Park area.

Tree bark and poles are no longer cut. There is very little gathering of food from the forest. Some limited deer hunting is allowed in the park. All other animals are protected.

Very limited tree harvesting is done. Trees are removed when it will benefit the remaining trees by making room for them to grow. Parts of the park have now reverted back from cropland to forest.

In my view, most of the timber is going to waste, having provided nothing but shade, acorns for wildlife, and something for visitors to look at as they drive past. As a result the forest is changing from mostly oak to maple. Once the change is finished, it will only provide shade and something to look at. No acorns.

The trees in the park, however large they appear today, were not alive prior to the late 1800's. Those trees died long ago. Most of the trees found there now are red oaks or silver maples, which seldom live to 200 years, or beyond. The largest trees in the park are likely only about 150 years old. That dates back to around the 1850's, when Europeans arrived.

There have been at least 7 significant reforestation projects in the park over the years. Four of them have been done by planting conifers, the the rest were hardwood trees.