Walking up to their log cabin in the northern Vilas County woods, Joe Hovel helps his wife, Mary, wash vegetables they picked from their land.

The Hovels are landowners who started out decades ago working with the land to use and benefit the sustainable natural resource. They own or manage about 3,000 acres of forestland in Wisconsin and Michigan.

They’ve come a long way since originally buying 25 acres shortly after getting married — their home property currently encompasses 396 acres.

Joe got started in the early 1970s when he purchased a sawmill from a friend and started building whatever area farmers and landowners needed.

“I got the thing home by using an old tractor from my grandpa,” Joe said. “I set up the sawmill and utilized a USDA Forest Service publication to get it running within a week. It was so much fun. That’s all I wanted to do. It was so interesting and rewarding, sawing logs, making lumber, building with my hands.”

Joe’s business progressed so well that he decided to build a log cabin.

“This guy kept driving by as I was building the cabin, so I finally waved him down,” Joe said. “He asked what I was building and what I was going to do with it. I told him I was building a cabin and was going to sell it. The guy said he wanted to buy it.”

Joe had sold his first cabin before it was even finished. And it was merely the start of things to come. As of fall 2017, Joe has built more than 250 cabins and full-time homes all over central and northern Wisconsin.

As business thrived, Joe and Mary acquired more land, some of it coming from people who appreciated their conservation mind-set and ability to nurture the land.

“I’ve developed a pretty strong land ethic in my line of work,” Joe said. “Conservation to me is the wise use and maintenance of our land for the future — using it wisely and leaving it so the next generation can use it wisely also.”

“I have made it my personal goal to help as much land as I can by active management and implementing conservation practices. When I first saw some of these properties, I knew we needed to help protect them.”

In 1979, Joe planted some trees with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. It was the first time Joe learned about the cost-share and technical assistance available through conservation programs. As the Hovels acquired more land, they realized the importance of managing and conserving it.

“We manage the land and promote land conservation for multiple benefits, including economic (growing timber), social (recreation, hunting, fishing), environmental (clean water and clean air) and intrinsic (inspiring beauty),” Joe said.

In managing the large plots of land, that’s when the USDA came in.

“I am so passionate about doing land management right, and so is NRCS,” Joe said.

In 2014, Joe worked with the NRCS Rhinelander Service Center to write a forest management plan.

“After a forest management plan was written, we worked with Joe through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to implement forest stand improvements and tree and shrub site preparation,” said Celie Borndal, soil conservationist at the Rhinelander Service Center. “He also utilized the Regional Conservation Partnership Program for tree and shrub site preparation and establishment.”

Joe said then when he faced a major tree planting project in 2015, he again asked the NRCS office in Rhinelander. And he also worked with NRCS in 2016, through the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, to complete forest stand improvements for wildlife habitat and soil quality.

He also continues his work with multi-story cropping and sustainable management of non-timber forest plants on many of his acres.

“The overwhelming, hands down, most important thing to me is to protect this land and these properties with a goal of the land being economically viable and socially attractive for future generations,” Joe said.

This story was provided by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service