By JOE RANKIN
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
What’s not to like about the eastern white pine?
A majestic tree. Long lived. Producer of clear, easily-worked, durable lumber that takes stain well, glues up nicely, is moderately priced, readily available.
And, it is one of those trees that responds predictably and readily to a handful of management rules. “It’s probably the single most important species where management really matters,” said Robert Seymour, a professor of silviculture at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources and a big fan of eastern white pine since his grad school days at Yale.
The eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, grows throughout eastern North America, from South Carolina northward to Quebec and Newfoundland, from the Atlantic to Minnesota. It is the largest tree in the eastern forests, easily topping 100 feet. Historically, specimens double that size were reported.
At the Ordway Grove in Norway, Maine, you can see venerable specimens that exceed 100 feet in height and probably are a century and a half to two centuries old.
Today the EasternOldList, an online database of old trees, says the oldest white pine in North America is a 408-year-old specimen growing at Swan Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, along with 11 other giants that range in age from 297 to 354 years old. Stop and think about that. Did the Swan Lake tree, as a sapling, hear in the wind, across the miles and miles of silent, uncharted Canadian forest the sound of axes as French settlers built a tiny outpost on the St. Lawrence at the place the Indians knew as kebek?
Ontario is also home to other very old white pines. In Maine the EasternOldList dates two found in Acadia National Park to 154 and 147 years old. There are other large and old pines in New York, upper and lower Michigan, Illinois and other states. But relatively few, for the obvious reason — the pine’s desirability for lumber meant that large ones were cut down decades ago.
In Maine, at the time of settlement, pines were scattered throughout the forest, particularly on rocky ridges and sandy outwash plains. Generally singly or in small groups, towering over everything around. They too quickly became targets for settlers wanting lumber to build houses, barns and furniture and to trade. For the Royal Navy, the gigantic eastern white pines of North America seemed like the answer to the King’s prayer’s. The Admiralty was running out of sources of quality masts to outfit the Empire’s burgeoning fleet of warships. And it took steps to preserve those stately “mast trees” for the Crown, enacting the infamous Broad Arrow Policy of 1691 and its successors.
Mast-suitable white pines 24 inches in diameter 12 inches from the ground or larger, growing on ungranted lands within three miles of a navigable waterway were reserved for naval use. They were marked with three slashes of an ax — the broad arrow. That didn’t sit well with colonists, who didn’t like faraway rulers calling dibs on what they felt were their trees. The Broad Arrow enactments were widely ignored, with settlers milling boards just under 24 inches wide to hide the fact that they had poached the King’s trees. Some historians say the Crown’s edicts on pines did as much as the taxes on tea and stamps to prompt a colonial revolt that created a new nation.
Those virgin pines did not last long, Seymour notes. In Maine the heyday of tall pine logging lasted barely 30 years, all told, ending about the middle of the 1800s. But for Maine, which joined the union in 1820, they were some formative years. You can get an idea of the tree’s historic significance by the fact that the eastern white pine is pictured on the state seal, The Pine Tree State is Maine’s nickname, the “white pine cone and tassel” is the official state “flower.”
These days Maine saws about twice as much spruce and fir lumber as it does white pine, but pine lumber is still one of the state’s most valuable forest products.
Maine is the largest producer of white pine lumber in the nation, by far,” according to Jeff Easterling, the president of the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association. “Maine is the home for the largest eastern white mine mill in the U.S. and three of the top five producing individual mills in the northeast. As for the rest of the country, only North Carolina and Wisconsin have mills that produce eastern white pine, but low volumes compared to the northeast,” said Easterling.
The state produces some 200 million board feet of pine lumber each year at handful of huge high-tech sawmills. JD Irving’s Dixfield mill, the largest in the country, produces 75 million board feet, Hancock Lumber’s mills together produce 80 million board feet, Robbins Lumber Co. in Searsmont produces 25 million board feet, Hammond Lumber Co. 6.5 million board feet, Pleasant River Lumber Co.‘s two mills have a combined capacity of 35 million board feet. In addition there are some 56 small stationary sawmills that process some pine.
Lloyd Irland, a Wayne, Maine-based forest economist and president of The Irland Group, said at a rough estimate the state’s large pine mills probably employ 400 to 500, with another 100 to 200 in separate value-added companies. Direct employment wages might total $15 to $20 million.There would be additional jobs and activity in the logging supply chain, such as trucking, he emphasized.
“At a conservative $400 per thousand board feet, the lumber output would be worth $80 million a year, say, or $80 to $100 million,” Irland said.
The white pine-oak forest ecotype covers an estimated one million acres of the state, mainly in southern Maine, according to an article by Irland and Maine Forest Service Biometrician Ken Laustsen in Woodlands, the newsletter of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.
That pine forest is largely a product of agriculture. Or, more specifically, of the demise of agriculture. When farming began and an inexorable decline in Maine beginning in the mid to late 1800s, the abandoned fields that were its inevitable legacy grew back to forest, much of it pine. Many of today’s most valuable pine stands had their genesis in the decades before and after World War I.
In 1958 Maine had 1.1 million acres of pine. By 1982 that had jumped to 1.4 mllion acres. By 2012, however, that had dropped to about 700,000 acres. Laustsen and Irland profess themselves stumped by where the missing pine acreage went. Replaced by houses? Changed into another type of forest? No one knows.
“Pine and oak have done well in southern Maine,” the two write. Despite the apparent loss of pine area, these forest types still represent about 25 percent of the timberland acres” in southern Maine.
Seymour, the University of Maine professor, has been doing research on eastern white pines in the University Forests and at the Penobscot Experimental Forest since he came to the school in the 1980s. He’s studied the effects of thinning, pruning and soils; of forest floor scarification for pine regeneration, insect predation and other aspects of pine management.
White pines respond very well to shelterwood management, said Seymour. In shelterwood the overstory is thinned, letting light in to the forest floor but providing some shade. When the mature trees seed in the next generation, the older trees are thinned again in periodic cuts or taken all at once, freeing up their progeny to take over.
Seymour has found that white pines can really put on the board feet when they’re thinned to about 30 per acre. That combined with pruning, can yield “an archetype tree 100 feet tall and 27 inches dbh” that could be worth, at least on paper, $1,400, he said. Even accounting for costs that’s a highly profitable crop, Seymour said. Bird’s eye maple or curly maple may be more valuable, but it’s almost impossible to manage for those.
Pine regeneration, he said, is straightforward as well. In the fall of a heavy cone year (eastern white pines drop cones every second or third year), simply “drive over every square inch of ground dragging a dead tree. That will disperse the seed and break up the duff to expose the mineral soil,” Seymour said.
In 2008 that was the practice employed on two University Forest pine stands. The result: 150,000 seedling pines per acre. “It looked like grass, it was so thick. It was like a golf course under there.” The wonder still comes through in his voice.
Pines may respond to a handful of straightforward silvicultural practices, but that doesn’t mean they’re problem-free. Two pests in particular pose a headache for forest landowners — white pine blister rust and the white pine weevil.
The blister rust is a fungus that spends part of its life cycle on plants of the genus Ribes — gooseberries and currants. Ribes eradication programs of the early 20th century and a continued ban in Maine on planting of domesticated gooseberry and currant bushes has not eliminated the disease, but has done much to keep it in check.
The weevil is much more serious. It’s a common and widespread pest of white, red, and jack pines as well as Norway and Colorado spruce and other conifers. The weevil kills the central leader, setting back the tree’s growth and creating multiple leaders or a crook in the stem that devalue the tree as a potential sawlog. Insecticides, traps and removal of infected leaders can help. Trees grown in the open are more vulnerable than those that have some shade. Scientists, Seymour among them, have done research into whether some pines sport resistance to the weevil. “There are clearly some trees that are resistant,” he said.
Maine’s pine forest may have mysteriously shrunken since the 1980s. and that’s not the only way it has changed: it’s gotten more mature, and much, much more valuable.
In 1971 the state’s pine forest was classified as 49 percent sawtimber, 24 percent poletimber, and 27 percent seedling/ sapling. Fast forward to 2012 and compare at 87 percent sawtimber, 12 percent poletimber and a measly 1 percent seedling/saplings.
For Laustsen that raises a red flag: Where is the next generation of pines going to come from. He said he’s been told by a consulting forester that regenerating a pine stand is a simple matter. But that doesn’t leave him reassured. The young pines just don’t seem to be there now.
“It’s clearly not a sustainable phenomenon,” Seymour agrees. “We have a lot of volume right now. it’s still growing and vigorous. But it’s not a sustainable age structure.”
Seymour’s research shows that pines generally aren’t growing back as the monocultures of the 20th century, but instead as part of mixed woods, almost as they did during pre-settlement days. That will require a change in management. “We need to look at managing pine in mixed stands. We can tend to generate some pretty pure stands, but most won’t be.” That will force landowners and loggers to “deal with a more scattered resource,” he said.
On sandy soils along the coast pine will grow back in almost pure stands, but those soils generally tend to be more infertile. Pine does better on richer, more organic soils. Unfortunately the areas where pine will grow well also tend to be the most desirable for houses.
When it comes to quality, back in 1971 only 7 percent of sawlogs were classified as Grade 1 or 2. In 2012 the percentage of pine logs graded 1 or 2 stood at an astonishing 55 percent, said Laustsen and Irland in their pine article.
“As desirable species for sawtimber, their inventory and quality have never been higher,” the pair note. “Well managed, these stands can continue producing quality sawlogs for decades; this future representation of oak and pine in the overstory, however, will require skill on the part of landowners, loggers and foresters.”
Climate change is another factor that could influence how pines are managed. While spruce and fir are likely to migrate northward in search of cooler temperatures as Earth’s climate warms over the coming decades, pines will probably do well here since they tend to tolerate, even like, warmer temperatures. “It’s just a really robust species, with a bumper seed crop,” said Seymour admiringly.
Volume, quality, and availability are all important factors in pine production, but there’s also the market to contend with. Markets for woods tend to fluctuate with fashion, like colors for cars or ladies shoe styles.
Seymour notes that pine’s market share has been “diminished by synthetic trim boards.”
And, “when was the last time you went into a new house and saw natural pine doors, moldings, cabinets?” asked Irland. “Paint grade is in. When we redid our first floor my wife got the natural pine moulding torn outand replaced with painted.”
Irland said plantation-grown Monterrey pine, also known as radiata pine, mainly from Chile and New Zealand, has eaten into the white pine market. Loss of paper capacity makes it hard to find a market for pine pulpwood, he adds.
All of which saddens him: “It’s my favorite species, my symbol of the North Woods since I was a kid going to Scout camp and on camping expeditions in Wisconsin. And it’s a great species for forest management for landowners. How it hurts to see these things happening.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability from his home in central Maine.