top of page
Green Forest

The Big Cut

Forests cover over 46% of Wisconsin today. More than 6 million acres of forested land offer a wealth of recreational opportunities, contain priceless ecological treasures, and provide economic stability for the state. Looking at those lush forests now, it is hard to believe that a view of the same areas around 1900 would have shown a vast wasteland of stumps. It has taken 100 years of and investments by many landowners, foresters, and leaders to recover Wisconsin’s greatest resource from the cutover-abandoned land that was left over after the Big Cut. 

How It All Began

Before European-American settlement from 1825 until 1880, between 63 percent of the land area would become Wisconsin and was covered with forests. A complex array of habitats supported wildfires, plants, and humans. 

sawyers in the woods 553200-0005-001 (2)

But when Wisconsin opened up to intensive European-American settlement in the early 1800’s, things changed. There was an increasing demand on natural resources, and in the late 1860’s-after the Civil War, logging became a major part of Wisconsin’s economy. 

1925 logging train-553240-0003-0001 (2).

Almost every city located north of a line drawn from Fond du Lac to La Crosse began as a lumber town in Wisconsin. Lumbering improved and expanded transportation facilities. It cleared land for agriculture. It gave employment to settlers and provided a market for agricultural products. It brought money as well as people from other areas and helped populate the state. It fostered the establishment of many secondary industries that used wood as raw material. The logging industry in Wisconsin did a great deal of good for the state as well as the nation. 

Cut over land in background- 553000-0014

Sawmills, Lumber, and the Chippewa Valley 

Wisconsin Forests are at the core of the history of the state. Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley were significantly important to the logging history because of the natural resources that abound here. The confluence of the Eau Claire river and the Chippewa River was a major asset. The rivers carried the beautiful white pine and red pine from the northern forests, where loggers lived and worked during the winter to the natural holding ponds in Eau Claire each spring. Half Moon Lake which was connected to the Chippewa River by an underground tunnel of water called a “flume,” and Dells Pond made good storage enclosures for the logs before they were sawed into lumber at the local mills. 

halfmoon lake holding pond 553340-0011-0
NW lumber co_ 554321-0001-001 (2).jpg

In 1846, the first sawmill was built in Eau Claire, and by 1880 there were more sawmills in Eau Claire than in anywhere else in the world. The town became known as “Sawdust City”--a title it still wears with pride. Lumberjacks came home from the lumber camps in the spring to tend to their farms or to work in the sawmills. Many of the logs were sawed into lumber at the mills in Eau Claire during the spring and summer months and were used in the area. Others were strapped together to make big rafts and floated down the Mississippi River to build cities to the south. In fact, lumber from Eau Claire helped rebuild Chicago following its tragic fire on October 8th, 1871, and between 1899 and 1904, Wisconsin led the nation in lumber production. Truly, Wisconsin lumber helped build the nation. 

When logging began in the Chippewa Valley, many people believed the vast resources of Wisconsin’s northern forests would last forever. By the early 1890s, however, it became obvious that the big stands of white pine and red pine had been nearly wiped out by the lumberjacks and in 1929, the last sawmill in Eau Claire closed. The “Big Cut” was over, and the beautiful forests were no more. 

The MacArthur Pine

This is a slice of the General MacArthur pine, which stood for approximately 300 years on land owned by the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. This ownership, since statehood in 1848, protected the tree from timber exploitation which was common in the late 1800s. Other tenant stands of old-growth timber still exist on the Board’s Trust Lands, with the earnings benefiting public education. 


This is also a slice of history. The General MacArthur Pine held the title of our nation’s largest white pine (Pinus Strobus) from 1945-1971, when it stood 148 feet tall, 5 feet 7 inches in diameter and contained approximately 8,000 board feet of lumber. It was named by a Milwaukee newspaperman in 1945 to honor World War II General MacArthur. 

Over time, wind and lightning took their toll. During a 1971 storm, the top 40 feet broke off and the General MacArthur Pine lost its largest white pine tree title. The ragged top then became a nesting site for osprey. In 1986, during a lightning storm, the tree was hit and caught fire. The center of the tree from ground level up to 20 feet in height was burned out. Amazingly, it stood until June 24th, 2001 when it fell victim to another fire. Remains of the MacArthur Pine are on Trust Land located west of Newald in Forest County, Wisconsin. 

In 1988, cones from the General MacArthur Pine were sent to several nurseries. Seedlings grown from the seeds were given to other states and countries. The General MacArthur Pine lives on through its descendants. Given time, protection and proper management, large white pines can once again stand in Wisconsin’s forests. 

Wisconsin Forests-Then and Now

Wisconsin’s Forests are always changing. This is true whether they are managed or not because they change in response to human activities such as logging as well as in response to natural events such as fires and windstorms. In 1800, a vast forest stood across northern Wisconsin. It was dominated by mixed hardwoods, also known as deciduous trees such as hard maple, yellow birch, basswood, American elm, rock elm and red oak, in addition to soft woods, such as conifers like hemlock, white pine, red pine, balsam, fir and white spruce. Within 100 years these forests, that many thought would last forever, were gone. A near-total clearing of 81 million acres of trees and the huge fires that followed forever changed the forest ecosystem.  

Many years earlier, in 1855, Increase Lapham, the state’s first scientist and first conservationists explained that trees maintained the balance of nature by preserving the moisture in the soil, regulating stream flow, providing nutrients for the soil, and restoring oxygen in the air. It was not until 1904, however, that E.M. Griffith was appointed Wisconsin’s first state forester. He worked tirelessly during his tenure for the conservation of this state’s natural resources. His efforts, plus the campaign of President Theodore Roosevelt for the conservation of this country’s natural resources, began to make sense for the citizens of Wisconsin. 

In the last 50 years, fire has been largely eliminated from the forests of Wisconsin. This is the result of continued efforts to make people aware of the danger of forest fires; to build better, more efficient fire-fighting equipment; to instill a respect for the importance of the ecological system in the citizens of Wisconsin. The forests will continue to change as a result of forest growth, natural succession, human disturbances, fire, weather, insects, disease, and the effect of wildlife. Such changes have occured over thousands of years and will continue into the future. 

IMG-0501 (1).jpg

Fires followed most logging operations and burned nearly half of northern Wisconsin at least once.  The many fires also damaged the soil and reduced its productivity. The most calamitous fire took place in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on the same day as the Chicago fire-October 9th, 1871. Tornado-like winds spread fire so rapidly that at least 1,300 people died, but it was most likely more. 

Forestry-Today and Tomorrow 

Today, of Wisconsin’s 35 million acres of land, forests cover about 16 million acres, which is approximately 46 percent of the state’s total area. Nearly 60% of the forested land in Wisconsin is privately owned, and ten percent is commercially owned. The thirty percent of forested land that is publicly owned is divided into federal (10%), state (5%) and county (15%) forests. Wisconsin forest resources fall into two main categories: northern mixed forests and southern broadleaf forests. Ninety-five percent of Wisconsin’s forests regenerate naturally through coppice sprouts or natural seeding. 

Harvesting keeps a forest healthy; therefore it has an important role in the management of this resource. Different types of forests require different management techniques. For instance, aspens require full sunlight to adequately regenerate, so clear-cutting is appropriate for them. On the other hand, northern hardwood or pine plantations should be selectively cut. Harvests should be well planned. Maturity and appropriate stocking should be considered--not just an offer of money for the trees. A properly managed forest is sustainable and provides products for the future. 

phoenix postcard no number  (2).jpg

The forest industry ranks among the top ten employers in 48 of the 50 states. Altogether, the forest industry boasts an annual national payroll exceeding 26 billion dollars. This figure counts only those directly engaged in the forest industry-- not the many more who indirectly make their living from forest management and forest products. Forests provide clean air and water habitat for wildlife, recreation, spiritual renewal, and more than 5,000 products people depend on daily. Each year, in the United States, one tree provides enough paper products to supply one person. Trees also provide many other items. Some Wisconsin products are christmas trees, books, calendars, candy wrappers, masking tape, puzzles, apples, pool cues, boats, bark mulch, and homes. 

The Return of Wisconsin's Forests 

On July 1, 1905, The United States Department of Agriculture/Forestry Service was established by President Theodore Roosevelt. In March, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to “get the nation’s resources back into good shape through relocation and protection projects.” Warren Knowles was Governor of Wisconsin in 1967 when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was formed. Since 1904, numerous agencies have been a major force in the conservation efforts in the state. It is through the efforts of these people and many other concerned, hard-working citizens that the forests of Wisconsin have made an unbelievable recovery. Today, the state’s forests contribute to clean air, clean water, abundant wildlife, and a foundation for economic stability, recreation, and quality of life. One hundred years after the Big Cut, Wisconsin forests are green, healthy, and abundant again. 


Two amendments to the state constitution supported extensive public ownership of valuable forestland. The first amendment in 1910 permitted the state to engage in forestry practices. The second, in 1924, was a referendum, which gave the state the right to appropriate money for the purpose of acquiring, preserving, and developing the forests of the state. Forests protect the health of river headwater. The natural attractions of the forests provide outdoor recreational benefits for increasingly urban society, and wood industries employ thousands of people and provide economic wealth for the state. This is as true today as it was a hundred years ago. 


Since 1933, the two national forests in Wisconsin have been managed as one by the United States Forest Service. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is located in Wisconsin’s northwoods. The Chequamegon side of the forest covers about 858,000 acres in Ashland, Bayfield, Sawyer, Price, Taylor and Vilas counties. The Nicolet side covers nearly 661,400 acres in Florence, Forest, Langlade, Oconto, Oneida, and Vilas counties. Together, they total over one and a half million acres. Both sections of the national forest were established by Presidential proclamations in 1933-the Nicolet forest by Herbert Hoover just before he left office and the Chequamegon forest by Franklin Roosevelt just after he became president. 

Archaeologists traced the cultural history of the area to 10,000 years ago when the land was inhabited by its original people. The Nicolet forest was named after Jean Nicolet, a French explorer who came to the Great Lakes region in the 1600’s. The Chequamegon Forest’s name is taken from the Ojibwe word meaning “place of shallow water” and refers to Lake Superior’s Chequamegon bay. 

Photo_2021-02-04_112240 (2).jpg
bottom of page