Factors at play today will help create the woods of the 22nd century
By JOE RANKIN
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
When Verso Paper Co. announced the impending closure of its faltering Bucksport paper mill and the loss of 500 jobs, workers were stunned and a collective groan of dismay rippled through Maine’s forest products industry.
The closure of a big market for wood, in a state with fewer and fewer of them, is a big deal. Even bigger when it’s part of a long-term trend: Verso Bucksport is one of three such announcements this year alone and mill closures have been occurring with dismaying regularity for years.
It’s changes like that will undoubtedly influence what the forests of the future look like, especially the forests in southern Maine.
But just as a person growing up in Maine around the time of the American Civil War could never have envisioned the resurgence of the forest in what was agricultural landscape, even those whose boots are in the woods today can’t predict what southern Maine’s now forested landscape will look like 100 or 150 years from now, how much of the land will be in forest, how healthy the woods will be, how much wood they will produce.
There are too many variables in the equation.
Among them: wood markets; the locally grown movement; invasives; climate change; efforts to educate landowners about forest management; transfer of forestland; housing trends; forest fragmentation; land trusts; genetically modified trees; the woods workforce. Many of these are related to each other: How one develops has a domino effect. Causes and effects will cancel each other out. Or . . . they will meld and support each other.
The overall trend may become apparent after a few more decades. Then again, the most important factor crafting the southern Maine forest’s future could be something that’s on no one‘s radar screen right now.
Right now southern Maine is blessed with an abundance of wood, and markets for much of it, “but it’s chilling to us when we hear about the Bucksport mill closing down,” said Don Cole, who runs Trees Ltd., a Sidney logging firm, with his brother Will. “Any time one of these mills goes away it’s bad for the industry.”
Right now the forests of southern Maine have a diverse mix of species and wood of a variety of quality, Cole said. “The more of these local markets we have, everybody gains from that. If the market system remains intact we’ll have a nice forest.”
Andy Shultz, the landowner outreach forester for the Maine Forest Service, sums up the effect of markets this way: “No markets, no management. How do you pay for management in places that have no market?”
Others caution that Maine is overly dependent on markets outside the state, not only to sell its raw logs, but also the finished products made in the state.
“The future will all have to do with markets outside of Maine. That has always been Maine’s market,” said Paul Sampson, the president of A.E. Sampson & Son Ltd, a Warren, Maine manufacturer of wood flooring. “We are the most heavily forested state, but we don’t have the consumers to go with it.”
A.E. Sampson & Son produces flooring in some three dozen species, many native to Maine, but all too often people from other states building second homes in Maine want a non-native wood, Sampson said, because they’re used to it, or their architect is, or because it’s fashionable.
Closely related to demand is supply. But the current ample supply is due to decisions made decades ago, and the future supply will be influenced by the decisions made today.
“I believe right now we’re reaping the rewards of 100 years of growing pine. But I’m afraid there’s going to come a point, 10 years or 25 years from now, that there might be a scarcity, or a reduction in the amount of sizable mature pine,” said Wayne York, who manages Hancock Lumber Co.‘s 12,000 acres of timberlands in southern Maine. He said pine stands are reseeding well, but there is a dearth of the pole-sized pines that will provide the next generation of sawlogs.
And in addition to what’s growing on the land today there’s the question of who owns it, and the bigger one of who will own it in the future.
While southern Maine has an ample supply of wood, much of it is owned by people who see it as something other than timber. As we noted in our September feature, a sizable percentage of today’s landowners don’t plan to harvest trees from their land.
Educating landowners about the benefits of periodic harvesting is the focus of a new state program, the Healthy Maine Forests Program. It is designed to show Maine landowners that, no matter what the goals for their land — recreation, solitude, wildlife, income — forest management can contribute to them, said Shultz.
“We have to market (the idea of forestry better.) We like to think that good forestry speaks for itself. That’s not necessarily so,” Shultz said.
Why many landowners don’t even want to think about harvesting timber is an open question. Many of those in the industry say people are uncertain about how to go about it, fearful of not getting good value for their wood, put off by bad logging jobs they’ve seen elsewhere, and worried about what their woods will look like after the heavy equipment is gone.
Foresters and loggers need to do some deep listening when they’re talking to clients, or possible clients, especially if they hope to be invited back in 10 or 15 years, they say.
“I think it’s important to be a good service provider,” said Harold Burnett, of Two Trees Forestry. “First off, you’d better be able to return phone calls and keep landowners updated and informed. You need to listen to their ambitions, their concerns. You have to begin with really open communication with landowners. If you just want to implement textbook forestry I think you’re going to have a bit of a struggle” keeping in business.
Tom Doak, the executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, which represents hundreds of small forestland owners, said that while it’s important to educate current landowners about the benefits of good forest management in hopes they will harvest timber and contribute to the state’s wood-based economy, even if they are disinclined to harvest, sooner or later a future owner will be.
Future ownership patterns are likely being determined today, say foresters and academics who follow such things. Forestland owners are a graying lot. Forty-five percent are over the age of 65, and 48% between 45 and 64 years old.
And while many landowners say they own forest in order to pass it on to their heirs, sometimes the heirs aren’t really interested.
“The generational transfer piece might be the biggest one (in determining the forest of the future) over the next 20 to 30 years,” said Shultz. “It’s already underway. Folks are inheriting land enrolled in the Tree Growth current use property tax law and want to know what to do next. I get a lot of calls about that.”
In many cases young people aren’t interested in their dad’s forest. That leaves older forest-loving landowners with a couple of other options: selling the land with a conservation easement or an outright sale or donation to a land trust.
Jeff Williams, a consulting forester based in Hollis who said he has had at least seven or eight land trusts on his client list, said “land trusts are already playing a big part” in forming the future forest. That influence will only get more apparent as the years pass, he added. SWOAM has seen interest in its land trust surge over the past few years as forestland owners look for someone who will care for their forest and manage it, Doak said.
But conservation easements and donations to land trusts can carry many stipulations. Not all are written to allow harvesting of timber, even in the name of improving the forest.
Jack Wadsworth of Wadsworth Woodlands in Hiram, a consulting forester and family forestland owner, said a 260-acre woodlot bordering a Wadsworth property was transferred to a land trust with the stipulation that no harvesting be allowed. “That piece of land has been taken out of productivity forever,” he said.
Perhaps more worrisome, though, from Wadsworth’s point of view, is the high cost of woodland ownership. Property taxes, he said, make the “costs of holding the land a challenge. “It’s a major problem” for people,” he said.
That, combined with the whole generational transfer question, can lead to fragmentation, something long seen as an issue for productive forests. Some say fragmentation seems to have slowed as the lure of a house in the country with a yard to mow and a 45-minute commute have lost their luster, but that fragmentation is still an issue.
“I think we’re going to lose more forestland to development,” said Wadsworth.
Hancock Lumber’s York agrees. “Every time a house is built there’s two acres of land out of production forever. I have to say the land base is shrinking a little bit” all the time.
Even the local food movement could factor into making the future forest of Southern Maine. Sampson said the growth of the farm-to-table movement and its emphasis on locally produced food and other natural materials could spark more interest in local woods. But it could also spur the conversion of forestland back into agriculture. “I do see people making more pastureland again,” Sampson said. He figures maybe 10 percent of the southern Maine forest could revert to farmland “with tax incentives and support for the farm-to-table movement as it is now.”
Along with the issue of landowners being willing to harvest and the markets being there to sell forest products to, is the question of whether there will be people willing to do the harvesting.
Skidder-chainsaw loggers are giving way to mechanical harvesters, for a variety reasons, including costs and safety. It’s a trend that many find encouraging.
“I’m very happy to see more harvesters and processors in the woods,” said Sampson, adding that the best operators of those machines spend time studying markets in an effort to get the most value for a log. “I see more specialty manufacturers going directly to loggers than to lumberyards or concentration yards. That’s a good step,” he said.
But selling young people these days on a career in the woods, even if it’s at the controls of a feller-buncher, isn’t easy. But it could be a crucial component in the supply chain.
“We need a sustainable workforce,” points out Trees Ltd’s Don Cole. “We need people interested in coming into the field.” Cole believes that sort of career path is ignored, or even actively discouraged, by high school career counselors. “I’m 55. That’s the living average of people working at the stump in Maine. If that doesn’t change in the next 10 years it’s going to be problematic, but after that it’s going to be catastrophic.”
Having the workers is key to a healthy forest economy. And even though southern Maine is the most heavily populated part of the state, the forest industry “creates an awful lot of employment for people,” said Wadsworth. One of the largest outfits Wadsworth Woodlands contracts with on its turnkey forest management jobs has a dozen logging trucks, three dump trucks and 40 employees, he said.
Over everything, of course, hangs the specter of climate change, though because forests change very slowly, given the average life of a tree, radical changes in the makeup of species due to a warming of the planet might not be seen within our 100 to 150-year outlook.
Except . . . for the almost sure thing — emerald ash borer. Something that wasn’t even found in the U.S. until 2002. Since then, of course, it’s killed tens of millions of ash trees and will likely enter Maine soon, given that it’s already well established in New Hampshire.
Williams, the Hollis forester, says that in a hundred years invasive species — plants as well as insects and diseases, will be a major influence in the forests of southern Maine, and how they’re managed. “Even with good management and good silviculture, if you don’t manage the invasive plants that are arriving from your neighbor’s property it will hinder any management and natural succession. It’s an immediate problem and it’ll only grow.”
Even with all these challenges, issues and question marks, foresters, loggers and others say they are, in large part, optimistic.
Southern Maine has some of the best soils in the state, points out Williams. It’s got a largely healthy forest. And the current mix of markets ensures that even low grade timber can find a buyer, though he said the likely long-term trend will be toward higher-quality wood. Landowners exposed to good management and harvesting practices are generally amenable to actively managing their property, even as the Maine Forest Service, organizations like SWOAM and foresters themselves continue to work to educate landowners about the benefits of forest management.
“Southern Maine forestry has a future,” Williams said.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, natural history and sustainability from his home and woodlot in New Sharon.