Standing below tall red pines, Merlin Becker describes how the 12,000 saplings he planted four decades ago in an abandoned potato field have grown into a forest.
Merlin and his wife, Georgie Becker, live on land that has been in their family for more than a century.
Located on North Military Road, between Waupaca and Weyauwega, the land was purchased by Merlin’s grandfather, Gust Kapitzke, in 1886. Merlin’s mother, Esther, was born on the property in 1902.
Since 1968, the Beckers have worked to develop a forest that produces lumber while providing habitat for wildlife. They and their relatives have planted 35,000 tress on a 160-acre parcel.
“You don’t inherit the earth from your grandparents, you borrow it from your children,” Becker says.
Merlin Becker purchased the land primarily as a place to hunt. A group of friends who hunt, called the 4 B’s, has been primarily responsible for trimming and logging the trees.
“The 4 B’s harvested 268 bucks and 105 does on this property since 1967,” Becker said.
Over the years, the Beckers pruned the lower branches and thinned the trees to increase the growth.
“The majority of the time, if you do thinnings you can maintain the health and vigor of your trees,” said Ben Baumgart, a forester with the Department of Natural Resources.
Baumgart spoke with visitors to the Becker Woodlands recently regarding a local disease that affects conifers. Known as red pine pocket decline, the disease causes short needles and thin crowns. It is caused by insects and fungi feeding on the roots of the pine trees. Because a pine root’s trees spread out and graft into the root systems of neighboring trees, the disease spreads from tree to tree, creating pockets of dead and dying pine trees in a forest.
“It takes about six years for a tree to die unless there is a drought,” Baumgart said.
He estimated that there are about 150 sites of pocket decline in Waupaca County.
Remedies include cutting down symptomatic trees and surrounding healthy trees to stop the spread of the disease. Sometimes, foresters will dig a trench around the infected area.
“We’re not going to stop the disease, but we can contain it,” Baumgart said.
In addition to the pines, the Beckers have two hardwood stands with large, wide-crowned oaks. When they thin the hardwoods, the Beckers leave behind several dead trees per acre to provide nesting places for raccoons and woodpeckers.
The woodlands also have wildlife corridors, comprised of rows of pine trees and Siberian pea bushes. These corridors give wildlife safe passage through the area, as well as nesting sites for birds.
There are also wetlands and open fields to encourage diversity and provide habitat for wild turkeys, rabbits and fox.
Merlin Becker’s efforts have been recognized statewide. Last year, he received the forest conservation award from the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.