Don Mueller's stewardship ethic

by Laura Nelson

We met Don on a crisp October morning in a gas station parking lot in St. Croix Falls, WI. Dan Heins, Unmanned Aerial Systems Coordinator in Forest Resources, and I arranged to meet Don and tour his land near Turtle Lake, WI. For each of us, Don had printed an aerial photo to use as a map for where we were going. Don did not need a map because he knows west central Wisconsin’s forests very well. He has made a career of stewarding these forests. 

Don Mueller is a 1967 graduate of forest products merchandising from the School of Forestry. Originally from Lake City, MN, he calls Dresser, WI his home. Don has spent over 30 years purchasing, managing, and reselling land in Wisconsin. “I try to leave the land in better shape than when I bought it,” he said. He has signed a use agreement with the Department of Forest Resources, generously permitting faculty, staff and students to use one of his properties for research and teaching purposes.

The parcel is over 160 acres of northern hardwoods, mostly red and white oak, with some basswood, maple, birch and aspen. Dark patches on our aerial maps indicated stands of tamarack. The species diversity, relatively close proximity to St. Paul campus, and ease of access make this land a promising location for experiential learning, from recreation studies to forest management. Assistant Professor Marcella Windmuller-Campione plans to use the property for a project for advanced students. “This property will provide a valuable opportunity for students to work through the full process of putting together a forest management plan; developing a sampling design, considering multiple objectives, and assessing important trade-offs from economics, recreation, and wildlife habitat,” said Windmuller-Campione.  Don Mueller

The most striking aspect of Don’s land is the high-quality mature oaks. From his expert opinion, “This red oak is the finest red oak in the United States.” The topography is relatively flat, allowing for straight stem growth and small heartwood. As we drove along the trails in his woods, he pointed out trees he would choose for harvesting and those he would leave to grow in value. “If it will be worth more in ten years, I leave it.” From his time owning and operating a saw mill, Don has an eye for spotting quality saw logs for oak veneer.

Don stewards the land under Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law program, which provides a tax relief for meeting certain management criteria. For Don, it all comes down to land ethic. His goal for the longevity of the forest is to maintain the same quality of wood, species diversity and forest structure that he has worked meticulously to create. “I don’t want for someone to come in and strip this land.” Don has a close relationship with his neighbors, who also care for his land. Chris Hansen, who owns adjacent land just south of Don’s, joined us for the tour. He maps and maintains Don’s trails in exchange for permission to hunt there.  Don Mueller and his neighbor Chris Hansen

On our trip through the forest, we parked at the only building on Don’s land, an aging structure he calls “the honeymoon shack.” The neighbor, Chris, led us on a walk to an old logging landing, pointing out deer scrapes and rubs along the way. The forest is also home to porcupines, turkeys, woodpeckers, grouse, and even some hemlock seedlings Don planted. “There’s not another stand anywhere else like this one,” said Don. It’s true. Students in the Department of Forest Resources will get to see firsthand a forest that not only has been managed, but incredibly well tended. For this lesson in stewardship for our students, we are grateful. Our promise is to continue working to improve, learn and actively manage this forest for the future.