Forest scene on Branch Lake land in Ellsworth. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Marcy Monkman, Ecophotography.org
Fresh from the Woods
January 2011, edited for republication January 2023
By Joe Rankin
They provide timber, hiking trails, opportunities to learn, and even maple syrup. They serve to protect watersheds and provide habitat for wildlife. They’re town forests. Also known as community forests. And they’re an old idea being refitted as a conservation tool for the 21st century.
Today community forests dot the globe, from Indonesia to Brazil to Nepal, helping local people protect their connection to the land. In New England community forests go back decades. In 1927 Maine passed a law allowing municipalities to acquire forest land and to “reclaim and plant such land” for the “cultivation of trees or the protection of a water supply.” The wording suggests Maine’s law meant to help town officials deal with abandoned farmland. Later, conservationists, alarmed by the tide of forestland sales, began looking at the town forest idea as a way to protect the forest base.
Today, some 170 Maine municipalities own about 150,000 acres of town forest, according to the Maine Forest Service. “I work with towns not only on street and park trees, but issues with town forests or municipally-owned forestland that involve the management of that land for the greater good of the community,” said Jan Ames Santerre. She heads Project Canopy, a a partnership of the Maine Forest Service and the Viles Arboretum that has funneled $1.2 million to towns to help manage their forests.
A 2008 report by the Community Forest Consortium defined “community-based forestry” as “management of forested landscapes by community residents for community and societal benefit.” Boiled down, community forests are publicly owned, managed with public input, for public values.
In Maine, town forests range from parcels barely larger than a house lot to thousands of acres. Garfield Plantation, with some 90 people, has 13,000 acres and Winterville Plantation, with about 200 residents, almost as much. Lewiston has 600 acres, said Santerre, and Portland about 500. “Both are managing those forestlands. Portland actively manages parcels as low as a couple of acres, mainly for safety and timber stand improvement,” she said.
Augusta has 860 acres, Eagle Lake 4,000, Mattawamkeag 1,000, and Bethel 175. In Bangor the nearly 700-acre Bangor City Forest is one of several town-owned forestlands. It dates back to an old farm acquired for back taxes in the 1960s. The China School Demonstration Forest consists of 50 acres adjacent to the town schools. There are walking trails, the forest is managed for timber production, and it is also used as an outdoor classroom, to teach about forest ecosystems. It was named the Maine Outstanding Tree Farm in 1997.
Bath has some 700 acres of town forest, including some old-style “recreational” cemeteries where much of the parcel grows trees, not gravestones, said Thomas C. Hoerth, the city forester. Bath’s town forest includes Butler Head, 140 acres on Merrymeeting Bay, and Thorne Head Preserve. The biggest use of Bath’s town forest is for recreation, said Hoerth. But city officials recently decided to lease 17 acres to a maple syrup producer, while another three acres will be tapped by local high school students.
When asked about the importance of town forests to a community, Santerre pauses. “I think it’s an even broader question. Why are forests important? They provide so many benefits: wildlife habitat, water quality, recharging aquifers and water supplies, and providing Maine with this landscape that is very uniquely Maine, that gives us that quality of place that we associate with this state,” Santerre said. These days it tends to be public concern about the potential loss of forest, or limits on public access that drive creation of new town or community forests.
“Over the past couple of years I have gained an appreciation that community forests should play an increased role in protecting the Maine landscape and providing public values to our communities. I think there’s an economic argument to be made,” said Wolfe Tone, the Maine state director of The Trust for Public Land, which has been involved nationally in creating town forests. Tone says that not only can timber from sustainabily managed town forests help provide revenue, but forests provide other economic benefits, including attracting vacationers and even new businesses.
TPL has been involved in two efforts in Maine to create town forests. One was Kennebunkport, where voters agreed to donate a 700-acre town forest to the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust to serve as a match for funds to acquire another 323-acre property. The other was in Ellsworth, where $2.5 million in city funds and Land for Maine’s Future money protected some 1,177 acres on Branch Lake — 500 acres by purchase, the rest through easements. The driving reason was to protect an important water source.
One report — Community Forests: a Community Investment Strategy by the Community Forest Collaborative — noted that town “forests either pay their way or produce no net costs to towns.” The report said they also provide a “complex suite” of benefits: timber, water quality and supply, recreation, wildlife habitat, open space, educational opportunities, and even “social capital” in terms of the partnering that needs to go on in order to stitch together projects. The report noted there is still a “healthy skepticism” in some quarters about the benefits and costs of community ownership and management of forestland. That poses a challenge for those working to build support for community forests. But it isn’t the most formidable.
Of the community-based forestry organizations responding to one survey, 81 percent identified “financial support as either a major or moderate challenge, with all other challenges split between moderate or not a challenge,” according to the 2008 report Status of Community-based Forestry in the United States. “One of the major challenges is funding,” said TPL’s Tone. “The way I would describe it is there is a wide, shallow pool of funding out there. There are no big sources of funding, but we see multiple funding pots for each project.” Town officials should understand that “they don’t have to do it alone,” he said. Finding the right partners can make the difference.
The Farm Cove Community Forest project is a good example. When guides and other citizens had concerns about potential lakeshore development and loss of public access to forests around Grand Lake Stream, they founded the Downeast Lakes Land Trust. They then sought help from the New England Forestry Foundation and many other partners. The results so far: acquisition of the 27,000-acre Farm Cove Community Forest, a 312,000-acre conservation easement, and protection of 50 miles of the St. Croix River. And, later, the addition to the Farm Cove Community Forest of 6,600 acres of adjacent woodland known as the Wabassus Lake Tract. Money for Farm Cove came from sources as diverse as donor Elmina B. Sewall of Kennebunkport, Wal-Mart, the Land for Maine‘s Future Board, The Nature Conservancy, and the North Cape Oil Spill Settlement Fund. DLLT is now working to raise another $24 million to acquire an additional 22,000 acres in Grand Lake Stream Plantation. “We’re making good progress two years into the campaign,” said DLLT Executive Director Mark Berry.
The Community Forest Collaborative says that one of the things needed to make the community forest movement a success nationally is a federal program to serve as a conduit for money. That might yet happen. The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program was created under the U.S. Forest Service. But the program is not yet funded. Proponents of the community forest movement say the model is a valuable tool for conservation and one likely to gain importance. Berry agrees. But he doesn‘t think it will be the dominant tool for preventing forest fragmentation.
“It’s likely that, on a large-scale basis, conservation easements will remain a primary tool to accomplish that,” Berry said. “But in selected circumstances town forests can be an important part of the equation. An easement can guarantee that the forest will remain undeveloped and open to public access, but ownership provides the local community opportunity to manage the resources, provide local community benefits and know that the management can be sustained for the long term.”
For many people, a walk in the woods means more than fresh air: It is a chance to gather wild plants and mushrooms for food, medicine, crafts, and other uses. Curriculum materials are available at this website. Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, the University of Vermont, and the University of Maine-Presque Isle spent almost two years talking to people in Aroostook County and neighboring New Brunswick about the wild plants and mushrooms they gather. A new website based on their work features profiles of the fascinating people who use wild plants and mushrooms, detailed descriptions of 30 plants including traditional and modern uses, and a searchable database of more than 120 plants and mushrooms gathered in northern Maine today. The website and companion handbook also explore the intimate linkages that develop between people and the land that through foraging and how changes in landownership are making it more difficult to engage in foraging – especially for Maine’s native peoples.
Find the website by clicking here.
A full-color handbook, Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine, contains materials from the website and more. The handbook is available for download by clicking here or in hard copy from Dr. Marla R. Emery. Contact her at Dr. Marla R. Emery, rsearch geographer, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, 705 Spear Street, So. Burlington, VT 05403, 802-951-6771, ext. 1111, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Marla R. Emery is research geographer with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Burlington, Vermont. She has studied the ways that wild plants and mushrooms contribute to peoples lives and livelihoods for over 15 years.
Dr. Clare Ginger is associate professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. Her research focuses on environmental policy and planning processes.
Dr. David Putnam is chair of the School of Quaternary Geology, Geoglaciology, and Archaeology at the University of Maine, Presque Isle. Among his research interests are human food foraging cultures in high latitude environments, especially near glaciers or sea ice.
Allaire Diamond is an independent consulting ecologist and nature writer. Before completing a masters degree in plant biology she was a high school science teacher.
Fresh from the Woods is produced by Forests for Maine’s Future, a collaboration of the University of Maine, Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and the Maine Forest Service.