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Wilson Nurserys future in question
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Will there be a state-operated tree nursery in Boscobel next year? We should know by this fall, according to Joe VandeHey, Operation Manager at Wilson State Nursery.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is seeking lease proposals from outside groups on all three of its tree and shrub nursery sites with an eye to consolidating seedling production to only one site.

The state currently has two active nurseries – Wilson State Nursery in Boscobel and Griffith State Nursery in Wisconsin Rapids – and a third in Hayward where some seed cleaning and research projects are done.

The DNR intends to consolidate bare-root production of trees and shrubs at either Griffith or Wilson.

The DNR will collect lease proposals through 11 a.m. on August 26.

“The plan is to make a decision by this fall in time for fall seeding,” said VandeHey.

How big an impact will this have on local jobs?

That depends in part on the bids received.

“The DNR will maintain their offices at all three sites with the other staff, forestry, fire suppression, and such, still maintained,” stated Carmen Hardin, head of the Wisconsin DNR's Forest Science Section.

Only nursery staff will be affected, most of who are springtime seasonal employees.

Wilson has five permanent employees, two of whom are eight-to-nine month seasonal employees. Griffith has a similar staffing makeup. Short-term seasonal employees are hired at both sites, with three to five for the summer per site and up to 50 per site in the spring when they harvest, sort and ship seedling orders.

“Part of the reason the department is requesting proposals is to make sure the grounds are fully utilized and to try to keep them contributing to the local economy,” Hardin said.

The decline in tree and shrub purchasing has been in a precipitous decline, according to former Wilson nursery technician Gary Eldred.

“At one time, while I was still working at the nursery, we had 24 acres in production just at Boscobel,” Eldred said. “This year, it was eight acres for all of the nurseries combined. In my opinion, grain production has knocked the bottom out of reforestation.”

Land has been reclaimed for corn and soy that was previously in CRP and contour stripping in response to grain demand, Eldred noted. Add to that changes in the climate that are favorable to tree and shrub growth, he sees little demand for reforestation products.

The sites could be useful for an alternate production such as native perennials seedlings and seed, Eldred observed. Native populations are under stress from loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, and climate change.

The Hayward site produces some prairie seed for the state, but Eldred sees production further south as a beneficial move.

“These are different types of land - they have different soils, different climates, they produce different plants,” Eldred said. “It’s in everyone’s interest to restore the native grasses.”

Eldred said that the native perennials are closely linked to soil fertility and biodiversity of animal, bird, and native pollinator populations. He sees use of the nurseries for such a project as both viable and needed.

“There is irrigation available, but on a scale as small as what the nurseries provide, it is questionable what sort of grain production could feasibly make it profitable to lease,” Eldred said. “I don’t think anyone will want to try to use it for tree production. No-one is buying trees right now.”

Hardin stressed that the planned changes will not interrupt landowner services, products or access to information.

Proposals may include ideas for education and research, or natural resources conservation, native tree and plant nurseries and more.

“The DNR is not limiting the proposals and is open to consider any idea that complements the department's mission to protect and enhance natural resources,” Hardin said. “We look forward to working with new partners as we enter a new era with the nurseries.”

A team of four or five people, including DNR staff, staff from other state and federal agencies, university and research facilities, and non-governmental organizations, is being formed to evaluate the lease proposals based on pre-established criteria to determine whether they meet department needs. The department also may also enter into direct negotiations with interested parties, if only one party expresses an interest in a property.

Copies of the RFPs are available at the following links: