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The autumn of his career

Wisconsin Law Journal Photos/David Ziemer

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you like to be?

Personally, I would choose the oak, but spending a day during the final weekend of September on state Supreme Court Justice Jon P. Wilcox’s 192-acre tree farm of near Wautoma, it’s easy to understand why he would choose the maple.

The evergreens are green, of course, and the oaks are still mostly green, but the maples are at their peak fall color — glorious burning red.

It is here that Wilcox will spend his retirement after the court finishes its current term. He will have spent 15 years on the high court, 13 years as a circuit court judge, six years in the state Assembly and 14 years practicing law, but he will still have plenty to keep him busy managing the farm.

Wilcox and his family have been in agriculture since his great-great-grandfather settled here in the 19th century. Originally, the family raised cows and traditional agricultural crops. The sandy soil, however, was not the best for such a venture, and when Wilcox was a boy following World War II, his father began to start planting evergreens for use as Christmas trees.

Future Christmas trees can still be found on the farm, as well as trees destined to become pulp, lumber, furniture, firewood, woodchips, and someday, Wilcox speculates, bio-fuel.

Wilcox is quick to point out that the farm is a fully renewable resource, and must be. The pine trees that will eventually be converted to lumber for sale at Home Depots must be part of sustainable forestry; Home Depot won’t purchase any lumber from clear-cutting.

Justice Jon P. Wilcox will retire from the state Supreme Court next August and focus on his 192-acre tree farm near Watoma.

Like most Supreme Court justices, Wilcox has spent most of each year in Madison since joining the court. After commuting for about five weeks during his first term, he and his wife bought a house in Madison where they have resided when the court is in session. After retiring from the court, he will return to the Wautoma area.

While Wilcox has been in law for a long time, his experience in Wisconsin agriculture goes back to his childhood.

It was only when he took the bench as a Waushara County circuit court judge that he fully abandoned traditional agriculture, and limited his farming to trees.

Until then, he had worked as a lawyer and farmer. It was a good combination in a rural community. He knew the other local farmers, and his practice involved real estate, litigation, forming corporations for the farmers, even criminal and homicide (at least until he joined the state Legislature, and that aspect of the practice became a political liability).

His time on the circuit court bench exposed him to a wide variety of experiences as well. Waushara County only has one judgeship, so, just as a justice on the Supreme Court, the judge hears everything and must be a generalist — as though combining any law practice or judgeship with a working farm wasn’t enough to qualify a man as well-rounded.

Wilcox estimates that he has planted 500,000 trees in his life. Even on a farm this vast, he can identify which rows of trees were planted by him, his wife, his father, or his children, and when.

These days, however, he says most of the new trees are planted by the ubiquitous squirrels on the property (who don’t charge anything for the service). This spring his wife planted an additional 24,000 trees to replace those lost in a forest fire that ravaged Waushara County last year. It was the third forest fire in the 50 years that Wilcox has been farming that has damaged the property.

Besides fire, insects and hail storms provide the major threats to the trees. A hail storm in 2000 damaged approximately 100,000 trees, besides breaking every window in the house. It took seven foresters two weeks to decide which trees would live and which would have to be cut

In sporadic areas around the property, patches of oak trees stand lifeless due to oak wilt. It’s a disease spread by beetles that is particularly difficult to destroy because the trees can only be removed during a short period of the year, lest the disease spread to other trees.

So, after Wilcox leaves the court, he will no longer face the usual nemeses of the legal profession — ambiguous statutes, inconsistent precedents, and multi-factor balancing tests. Instead, his battle against the nemeses of the tree farmer — fire, insects and hail — will continue.

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