Fresh from the Forest

Maine forestland is rapidly recovering from heavy cutting associated with the spruce budworm outbreak of the 1980s. (Photos by Andrew Kekacs)

Latest inventory suggests Maine forests healthy, growing

By Andrew Kekacs

Editor’s note: Economic turmoil, global warming and wildly fluctuating energy costs have led policy makers, scientists and investors to look more closely at the world’s forests. The shift in attention from Wall Street to Wytopitlock offers great promise and potential problems for Maine. In the coming months, Fresh from the Woods will focus on the capacity of Maine’s forests to provide new products and good jobs in an uncertain world.

The latest inventory of Maine’s forests shows the state is growing 15 percent more wood than it is harvesting each year. That’s a substantial change from the 2003 inventory, when cutting exceeded growth by 3 percent.

The finding is very good news for businesses that rely on the forest – from paper companies and lumber mills to emerging industries such as wood-based chemical manufacturing.

“Since 1986, the [annual state] harvest has averaged 6-7 million cords,” said Kenneth M. Laustsen, who oversees the inventory program for the Maine Forest Service. “Shutdowns [of manufacturing firms] have been offset by new products and uses … Maine is unique in that whatever we grow, we can find a market for.”

A draft copy of the 2006 inventory – released in mid-January – shows Maine forests have about 285 million cords of marketable wood. That’s up from about 150 million cords in 1952.

“We know how to grow wood,” said Laustsen. “In the last 50-plus years, the standing inventory [of timber in the Maine Woods] has increased 93 percent.”

In 1999, Maine became the first state in the Northeast to adopt a new method for tracking the changes in forest inventory each year. About 3,400 permanent inventory plots were established statewide, with one-fifth of them studied each year. The data from the current year and four preceding years is combined to produce a “rolling average” – one which can fairly quickly show changes in the volume and quality of tree species growing in the Maine Woods.

The data is extremely important in estimating the capacity of the state’s forestland to support traditional and emerging industries, as well as provide clean water, wildlife habitat and a host of other benefits for Maine people. The latest inventory suggests forest-products industries are less likely in the near future to face rising raw material costs due to shortages of wood.

Among other highlights of the 2006 report:

• The state remains 90 percent forested, believed to be the highest percentage in the nation.
• A variety of measures show Maine’s forests are growing older and denser as they recover from heavy cutting associated with the spruce budworm outbreak of the 1980s. For example, there has been an estimated 13 percent increase in the number of softwood trees and a 5 percent increase in the number of hardwood trees, primarily saplings (1-5 inches in diameter), since 2001.
• The average volume of marketable trees on an acre of Maine forestland has increased 5.1 percent since 2001, to 16.5 cords.
• The amount of sawtimber – high-value, large-diameter trees traditionally used to make lumber – increased 6 percent statewide from 2001-06.
• While the growth-to-harvest ratio is positive for all tree species statewide, the inventory showed spruce species are being cut substantially faster than they are growing. “For spruces, the ratio is 0.80 [harvest exceeds growth by 20 percent] and is mostly attributable to removal levels [cutting],” the report states.
• Sugar maple, beech and yellow birch show a growth-to-harvest ratio of 0.78 percent, which the report attributes to not only cutting, but also tree death and decrement [a decline in quality that makes a tree unmarketable], with the ongoing beech bark disease epidemic a major contributor.
• Other species show substantial increases in the growth-to-harvest ratio. The latest inventory found the state is growing 69 percent more white pine, 79 percent more hemlock and 344 percent more “other commercial hardwoods” than it is cutting.

Laustsen recognizes that inventories, which use mathematical models to estimate the current condition of the forest, have limitations. “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” he says.

Still, the 2006 report is perhaps the best inventory ever done, according to Laustsen.

“We have good growth data,” he says. “Also, we break up the state and look at conditions in four mega-regions. The state as a whole could be doing very well, but potential [regional] problems could be concealed.”

The mega-regions include Eastern (Hancock, Piscataquis and Washington counties); Northern (Aroostook, Piscataquis and Somerset); Southern (Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and York); and Western (Oxford and Franklin).

Laustsen says the regional data largely mirrors statewide trends. “We have seen some declines in some species in some regions, largely attributed to beech bark disease, balsam wooly adelgid [an insect pest] and other known stresses.”

Overall, the volume of trees growing in each of the four regions increased from 2001 to 2006. The amount of wood in the Southern mega-region grew by 8 percent, followed by the Western (6 percent), Eastern (3 percent) and Northern (1 percent) mega-regions.

The amount of sawtimber increased substantially in three of the four regions. Sawtimber volume jumped 11 percent in the Eastern mega-region, 10 percent in the Southern and Western, and 2 percent in the Northern.

Despite the good news, Laustsen says the potential impact of emerging industries such as wood pellets and wood-based chemical production needs to be carefully studied.

“Maine Forest Service needs to take a new look at future wood supply and understand what these [potential new] removals would mean to the overall wood harvest, and how they would affect soil fertility, biodiversity, wildlife and other considerations … The broad data is available, and we have good modeling, but frankly it will take money to make sure, as we go forward, that there are no unintended consequences.”

Fresh from the Woods is produced by Forests for Maine’s Future, a collaboration of Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the Maine Forest Service, and the University of Maine.

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