Success Story: Walter and Hattie Crook

Wally and Hattie Crook bought their land nearly 40 years ago. The Crooks lived and worked in Richland Center, Wisconsin, the county seat of Richland County. Although they lived in town, the Crooks always wanted to own land as a family retreat to enjoy with their seven children. Wally enjoyed deer hunting and desired to pass the tradition to his sons (he has now successfully passed it to his grandsons, too).

Five men standing in woods
Wally Crook (center) discusses his harvest with foresters, a logger and his Woodland Advocate.

After some searching, they found their piece of paradise a few miles from town. The Crooks populated the property with their kids, friends, and extended family to camp, explore, cook outdoors, and—yes—work. For many, buying recreational land is like buying a recreational home—it is easier and more fun to imagine all of the fun family activities than to acknowledge the challenges that will accompany ownership.

But just as every cabin will eventually need a new screen door, land requires maintenance, too.

Fortunately, the Crooks are nurturers—together they have raised seven kids and Hattie was a career nurse—and they embraced their land, too. When they acquired the property, it had been in agriculture, planted to row crops and grazed. They soon recognized a little work would be required for the land to provide the recreational opportunities they envisioned.

Nurturing the land

With the help of their Department of Natural Resources county forester, the couple installed quail shelterbelts along field edges and planted pines on the grazed hillsides to establish potentially profitable trees while impeding erosion and providing wildlife food and cover. As a family, the Crooks also planted thousands of pine seedlings.

Wally and Hattie share a smile as they recall, “It was like pulling teeth to get the kids’ participation. They would plant two in a hole to get the job done faster. But guess what? Today, the kids come out [to the property] and say, ‘I planted those trees.’”

During their initial meetings, the county forester introduced the Crooks to a forestry program encourages sustainable forestry through required timber harvests. Wally recalls what he thought at the time, “Hell no, I don’t want them telling me when I need to cut trees. I want to make that decision.” Today, Wally readily acknowledges the irony. “Needless to say, in thirty-five years, I didn’t make that decision.”

What Wally describes is not unique. For most landowners, harvesting timber ranks low in priority; after all, the negative impacts on aesthetics (a high priority for many), a modest or infrequent economic return, and even the future promise of healthier trees lacks an immediate and tangible reward. But after 35 years and with assistance from My Wisconsin Woods, the Crooks realized no decision was still a decision.

Making the decision to harvest

It was a neighbor that ultimately moved the Crooks’ thinking forward. Joe Triggs serves as a Woodland Advocate for My Wisconsin Woods. The Woodland Advocate program offers woodland owners an experienced peer to walk their land and share a conversation, meeting landowners “where they’re at.”

As community members experienced in land management, advocates have faced similar challenges and opportunities, and an therefore serve as a trusted source of information without an agenda. Joe represents one of the eight Woodland Advocates connecting with landowners in Richland County starting or reigniting conversations about woodlands.

For years, the Crooks were seeing signs of stress in their pine stand, which they attributed it to white pine blister rust, a common disease. The spark to seek outside assistance came when they saw Joe’s picture on the flyer from My Wisconsin Woodss. Joe agreed with the Crooks’ assessment, “The pines look like they are going backwards.”

He recommended they contact Jake Elder, the new county forester, vouching for his technical expertise and easy demeanor. Jake’s first visit affirmed white pine blister rust was a factor, but also noted that over-crowding was the reason for the overall lack of stand health, a factor that was very much in their control. Within days, the Crooks lined up a logger for spring to thin the stand back to health.

Although Hattie confesses she doesn’t want the “ugliness” of a harvest, both readily appreciate the necessity of a harvest to maintain healthy pines. In May 2012, they began working with Schreiner Forestry on a select thinning in 10 acres of their pines.