Two years ago, logging crews spent the first three months thinning the woods surrounding Riverside Golf Course along the Presumpscot River.
Not unusual, this is Maine, after all, the most forested state in the country. But it is noteworthy because it occurred in Maine’s largest city.
City Arborist Jeff Tarling and the Parks & Recreation office were braced for criticism when the logging equipment rolled in. But it didn’t come. The next spring golfers were saying the playability of the course had improved and park visitors noticed that once the trails were improved the park was back to ‘normal’, Tarling said.
“We knew that Portland residents love their trees and forests and would support the work if they knew it was in the best interest over the long term,” Tarling said. “Having a forest plan with specific objectives — in this case sustainable forest health, wildlife and recreation — was key along with a media release about what to expect.”
So far, Portland has conducted harvesting operations on a handful of its forested parks, with no real blowback. The logging operations generated some revenue for park improvements and helped educate residents about what thoughtful forest management can do to improve public green spaces.
Portland isn’t the only Maine, or even New England, city to incorporate harvesting into its plans for parks and preserves. Bangor, for instance, has long been praised as a leader for its management of its Roland Perry City Forest, and dozens of Maine towns manage town forests.
But Portland is “doing a lot right now where they didn’t necessarily for a long time,” said Jan Santerre, the director of the Maine Forest Service’s Project Canopy, which helps municipalities with funding for education, management and maintenance of their woodlands. “They set a great example for other communities throughout the state.”
Portland’s nickname is, after all, The Forest City.
The city owns some 600-plus acres of forestland, with a few hundred acres more owned by conservation groups and land trusts that Portland’s Parks & Recreation office works closely with. There are thousands of trees growing on the city’s streets and in parks and public grounds that Portland Forestry also cares for.
But it wasn’t always that way. Within a few decades of its founding in 1786 on a peninsula in Casco Bay, most of the landscape had been shorn of trees. It wasn’t a trend unique to Portland. All over the east the forest was pushed back as a rapidly growing nation rushed to build itself.
But later, forests, and trees, came to be recognized for what more they had to offer.
Portland planted its first ornamental trees in 1793 — Lombardy poplars. In 1921 200 lindens were planted along Baxter Boulevard as a Memorial Grove to Portland’s World War I veterans. The city now has some 20,000 street trees as well as thriving woodlands. Like Deering Oaks Park, with its 1,000 trees, including heritage white oaks. And Evergreen Cemetery, with sugar maples 150 years old, famous as a stopping point for migrating songbirds. And the 30 acres of white oak and hemlocks of Baxter Woods.
In the later part of the twentieth century, the U.S. Forest Service began pointing out how urban forests can contribute to a city’s livability and the health of its citizens as well as the economic health of the community. Even fragmented forest, tiny patches that may have been vacant lots that reverted to woods over time, can “still be a valuable thing,” said Tarling.
Portland’s city government has had a city forester since the 1800s. The title was later changed to city arborist. Tarling was hired in 1989. He heads a staff of nine with a budget of $795,000.
In 2007, Portland developed its first forest master plan, for Evergreen Cemetery, using grant money from the Maine Forest Service’s ‘Project Canopy’ program and decided to incorporate forest management. Up until that point the city-owned woodlands had been left largely alone. Some had a good mix of ages and species of trees, with healthy regeneration in the undergrowth. Others, because of overstocking, were not creating the next-generation forests and were starting to decline.
For though we use the term urban forest, that’s sort of an oxymoron.
Urban forest is not a true forest, which implies a self-sustaining natural ecosystem. Urban forests are too fragmented. Think of them like an aquarium, which needs a lot of TLC, compared to the naturally sustaining river or lake it’s meant to mimic. Urban forests are, in essence, artificial environments.
“We knew that we had a number of acres that, in order to care for it, well, we had to start somewhere and not just wonder what’s going to happen to the forest. Looking at forest health told us what we needed to do,” Tarling said.
The city’s first harvesting operation took place in 2010. Basically a salvage job it cleaned up red spruce on Cliff, Peaks and Cushing islands, three of the five offshore islands that are part of the city. The trees were toppled in a storm three years earlier. The logs were ferried off the island and sold.
In 2013 Portland conducted its first forest management project at Pine Grove Park.
On a sunny day in August, Tarling pulls his city-owned truck to a stop at Pine Grove in a residential neighborhood. Five years ago the 12-acre lot had a lot of big white pines — and not much else. The pines were so thick they shaded the forest floor into a virtual desert. Regeneration was nonexistent. Loggers thinned the pines in a three-week operation. Some of the trees were sold for lumber and some chipped for biomass.
Residents came by to watch. Some were skeptical, others supportive. “One man was in his 80s and said he remembered growing up in the area and how much it had changed,” said Tarling. “He said he was gratified to see that we were opening up the woods.”
Neighbors brought their kids out to watch the feller buncher, log skidder and slasher at work processing the pines. Local school groups took field trips to learn about the forest and forest management. And they later came back to plant some trees.
Within two years the ferns and blackberries and blueberries and young trees — white oak, mountain ash — started coming back. Pine Grove is now an open, rejuvenated woodland.
Riverton Trolley Park is a 30-acre city-owned forest located on the site of an amusement park that once hosted a casino and the largest roller coaster in Maine, named the Riverton Flyer.
Tarling pulls his truck into the parking lot. “If you look out across there to the right, that is all thinned out,” he said. They took out invasive Norway maple, ash and white pines. “The challenge now is controlling the invasives” such as Japanese tree lilac, Norway maple, buckthorn and Japanese knotweed, Tarling said.
The city’s golf course, located on 320 acres along the Presumpscot River, was built in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project, said Tarling. Not all of it is dedicated to golf— there’s forest surrounding the fairways. In 2016 the city harvested white pine, basswood and ash there. The operation wasn’t only aimed at improving forest health, but reclaiming some of the course from trees that had encroached 40 to 50 feet into the fairways.
Tarling was sitting in his truck one day while the logging was going on when a person he didn’t know pulled up next to him. He was afraid the guy was going to go off on how the city was ruining the woods. Instead, “he said, ‘I know what you’re doing, you’re doing forest management work.’ ”
At the next stop Tarling shows off the results of a 2017 thinning operation on about 20 acres of Evergreen cemetery. The operation was green-lighted after a forester’s assessment. White pines were taken out and some tree planting done afterward. One tree they made sure wasn’t touched: a lone American chestnut, about 16 inches in diameter.
Another forest management operation was undertaken at the city-owned Portland Technology Park, where the development plan included retaining a substantial portion of the property as woodland, Tarling said.
Other forestry operations are planned over the next few years.
Tarling said he looks at what has been done so far and “it has been really rewarding.”
Tarling spends most of his time on street trees. The city has 20,000. Every one is entered into a computer database, color coded to how well the tree is doing and what action might be needed in the future: pruning, replacement, whatever. Another 15 percent of his time is spent on planning and supervising forest management projects, he said, and 15 percent on public relations and citizen education.
The education component is perhaps his most important task, because it’s key to public acceptance of what many see as meddling with “their” public parks. “The challenge is always to relay the information to the public about the goals of forest health. We want them to see it as productive and not detrimental. Trees and forests make cities more livable, the environmental and health values provided more than offset the cost to manage the resource.”
Santerre said with Portland’s track record she’s certain the successes will continue. But she acknowledges “it is a challenging process when you’re not an individual landowner, but a city of 65,000 people who all feel like they have a stake in the process.”
Joe Rankin writes about forestry and nature. He lives in Maine.