Robert Perschel has worked in forestry for a long time. As an industrial forester, a forestry consultant, with The Wilderness Society and a chair of the Northern Forest Alliance. He’s a co-founder of the Forest Stewards Guild. Perschel has seen a lot of different types of forestry. And he’s often grappled with the question of what, exactly, really good forestry is.
Exemplary forestry, one might say.
Now, as executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation, he’s helping define it. This spring NEFF published its definition on its website, essentially making it official, though Perschel said that too is likely to change over time as more research is done and more information gleaned.
But the concept of exemplary forestry, and a plan for a demonstration project on a grand scale, could become a major influence on how forestry is practiced in New England and on the health of the forest itself.
“It’s been a goal of ours that we should be able to do this,” said Perschel. Accreditation programs that certify for sustainability get part of the way there and are helpful, he said, but sustainable forestry isn’t necessarily exemplary forestry.
In a nutshell, exemplary forestry would look at the forest through a holistic lens, valuing it for things like wildlife habitat, clean air and water and its ability to help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon. When it comes to timber, exemplary forestry would demand a healthier, better-stocked forest producing higher value products. And it would do those things using objective and verifiable standards.
“Those two goals” — creating a healthier forest environment and boosting timber production substantially — “aren’t in conflict if one is given the time to achieve them on the ground, said R. Alec Giffen, a NEFF senior advisor and, with Perschel, the co-author of a report out this past April defining exemplary forestry, catchily titled “Exemplary Forestry for the 21st Century — Managing the Acadian Forest for Bird’s Feet and Board Feet at a Landscape Scale.”
Giffen notes that the basic disconnect is that good forest management is a decades long proposition, while our early 21st century economic system is focused on much shorter spans of time. Many new forestland investors these days plan to hold their properties only 10 to 15 years, and want to make a respectable rate of return on it during that time.
That’s not a recipe for exemplary forestry, said Giffen. Instead, “it’s the basic hurdle that needs to be addressed if this is going to be viable,” he added. “We need to figure out as a society how to reward landowners more fairly for the full suite” of valuable things forests provide for humanity, not just timber, he said.
NEFF is working with the Maine Mountain Collaborative, a consortium of conservation and forestry organizations, to bring together philanthropists and investors as part of a new economic calculus intended to promote long-term investing with clear timber production and forest health goals.
Under it, explain Perschel and Giffen, investors would be partly reimbursed for the costs of forestland by the sale of “exemplary forestry” easements on the property to a land trust funded by donations from philanthropists. Those easements would go far beyond easements in use now, which are primarily intended to restrict development. Instead they would specify target stocking and timber production goals and measurable objectives for things like wildlife habitat, public access and even aesthetics.
The benefits could be huge, note proponents: a healthier forest ecosystem and healthier local communities.
Giffen noted in a presentation to the Society of American Foresters last fall that, first among those benefits, forests would be kept as forests. But public access would be assured, timber production could eventually ramp up, there would be a healthier tourist economy, wildlife habitat would improve and forests could help mitigate the effects of climate change, he said.
To demonstrate the feasibility of this new financing “partnership” the Maine Mountain Collaborative is now pursuing the creation of an Exemplary Forestry Fund to finance a pilot project of at least 100,000 acres —“landscape scale” in other words.
They are focusing on the area known as “the Mountains of the Dawn” — the swath of the Appalachians that runs from the New Hampshire border to the area around Baxter State Park.
“It’s seen as a critical area” from a variety of perspectives, said Jerry Bley of Creative Conservation, a Maine consulting firm that is working with the MMC on the project. “From an ecological perspective it’s really a unique region. It supports bird species of national significance and has a great diversity in terms of elevation and forest types and it’s also important in a world of changing climate, since it’s an intact corridor between two developing regions that can be important as the climate changes and species move.”
It’s also in an area where forestland ownership is still in flux, with more Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) buying forestland with shorter-term investment timelines, said Bley.
Bley said he and Giffen have been talking the idea up to people in the investment world and silviculturists.
“We get met with a combination of enthusiasm and skepticism,” Bley said. “Exactly what one should expect with a new and different venture. In the end, what’s the alternative? If we’re looking to improve management of forests and allow for improved stands of woods to be part of the forested landscape for wildlife and other benefits, there needs to be a different approach.”
Henry Whittemore, the new executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation, also worked as a consultant on the project, running spreadsheet models to see how the numbers might shake out.
So, is it a sellable idea? “I think it’s going to be a challenge,” Whittemore said. But he added that for the right investor, one with truly ‘patient’ capital, and with a leaning toward philanthropy, who wants to do good even if the results take a while to become apparent, it could be a good fit.
What Whittemore’s analysis comes down to is that forestland investing that concentrates on turning timber quickly into cash generates greater returns, at least over the short term, but leaves the initial asset — the forest itself — worth less. Exemplary forestry will produce a respectable return over the longer term and in the end the forestland itself is more valuable because it’s in better shape.
That’s not to disparage other types of forestry, Whittemore, Bley and others emphasize. Corporations and investors have constraints that sometimes don’t give them a lot of leeway in management.
“The lands are being managed today in an entirely predictable manner given the systems that we live with,” said Giffen. “What we’re trying to do is come up with a way to compensate investors for their patience and manage in a way that would eventually provide long-term return from high quality timber with strong environmental concerns.”
Whittemore said exemplary forestry “presents an alternative to managing the woods that Aldo Leopold would have embraced. It’s ‘intelligent tinkering’ where you keep all the parts. It can be thought of as creating a kind of bridge between the preservation outlook of John Muir and the utilitarian view of Gifford Pinchot.”
And it is easier to see how the various components of such a management strategy would work when painted on a big canvas. That’s why Maine Mountain Collaborative is looking at a demo project in the neighborhood of 100,000 acres with the idea of scaling up from there if things work out.
But what of all the small landowners? Can they practice exemplary forestry?
Absolutely, said Perschel. Many have. After all, there’s no shortage of high-quality forest management being practiced on holdings of 50 to 500 to 5,000 acres. Just look at the competition for tree farm and forest stewardship awards. Perschel notes that most of NEFF’s 144 tracts of forestland are small to medium in size — 50 to 2,000 acres.
Perschel said the smaller landowner just has to realize that his or her acreage might not be able to provide the whole range of ecological benefits. He advises smaller landowners to look at the bigger landscape around their property and see where forestry on their land might fill in some gaps, say, in creating wildlife habitat.
In the end, small landowners can concentrate on “practicing good forestry” over the long term — forestry that keeps carbon in the forest, that produces “the kind of materials that have a big impact when they replace other materials, like saw timber, that’s the most helpful kind of product you can grow.” The key, Perschel added, is to get professional help in management, by hiring a forester.
While NEFF and the Maine Mountain Collaborative are working on the Exemplary Forestry Fund and a “landscape scale” project, NEFF has already taken a step to address some small forest landowners’ financial constraints. It has debuted a “pooled timber income fund” that provides a landowner with a tax break and income for the rest of their life, while assuring them that their forest will be well managed after they are gone. Think of it like a green annuity.
In fact, the move to exemplary forestry could be considered homage to those small forestland owners who have, against the financial odds, practiced exceptional forestry over the generations, Perschel said. “This should be an affirmation that they’ve been doing a good thing.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability for magazines and websites.