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Sunday
Oct172010

Keeping Maine's Forests I

Fresh from the Woods


Sunrise at Haymock Lake in northern Maine. (Photos by
Andrew Kekacs)

Keeping Maine's Forests: Part I

By Andrew Kekacs

After more than two decades of often-rancorous debate about forest policy, a quiet effort by the University of Maine, industry representatives, environmentalists and the Baldacci administration might finally have moved those who care about the Maine Woods to a sense of shared purpose.

The 18-month effort got almost no attention. It resulted, however, in a groundbreaking document, “Keeping Maine’s Forests: A Study of the Future of Maine’s Forests.” The document can be found at: www.crsf.umaine.edu/pdf/KeepingMainesForests_2009.pdf.

The study group was led by Professor Bruce Wiersma, director of the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests and former dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture at the University of Maine.

In late 2007, Wiersma was invited to meet with Karin Tilberg, senior policy advisor to Gov. John Baldacci, and Alec Giffen, director of the Maine Forest Service. They asked Wiersma to lead a diverse group of people in identifying the key challenges to Maine’s forests, and developing a series of proposals to protect this critically important resource.

The state offered no financial support for the group. It was to be an all-volunteer effort.

Tilberg, Giffen and Wiersma recruited more than 20 people representing the full spectrum of interests in the woods. Participants came not only from Huber Resources Corp., Wagner Forest Management Ltd. and Isaacson Lumber Co., but also from the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Council of Maine. Others who participated had ties to the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, the Maine Sporting Camp Association, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the U.S. Forest Service, Maine TREE Foundation, several state agencies, the Maine Legislature and College of the Atlantic.

At the first meeting, Wiersma told participants that he wanted to use the National Academy of Sciences study model, which starts with a “bias statement” from everyone involved, in which they explained what they believe to be important and true. Rather than driving the group apart, the statements demonstrated an important area of agreement.

“It was evident that the group shared a common bond and a common interest in our passion about the forest,” said Wiersma. “This established a bond that carried us through almost two years of study.”

 
Bruce Wiersma is director of the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests.

Wiersma also asked that participants try to act not as representatives of their own organizations, but rather as individuals who were gathered together because of their expertise.

The group spent much of its time getting facts. It heard 22 presentations from state and national experts on such topics as forest certification, institutional forestland investors, forest monitoring and conservation easements.

“The key question for me was, ‘How do we keep the forest; how do we make sure it isn’t nibbled to death?’” said Sherry Huber of Maine TREE Foundation, who has been both a key figure in the forest products industry and an ardent environmentalist for decade. “There was general agreement that the health of the forest depends on the health of the forest-products industry ... the products will change, but the economic use of the forest is the key to its survival.”

Eleanor Kinney, who was then president of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, also was a member of the group. “It was an opportunity for diverse stakeholders to get together and talk about issues that are sometimes difficult to discuss in Maine,” she said. “… We heard from all viewpoints in a setting that was respectful and focused on finding common ground. And the report came out with a set of recommendations [on which] the whole group agreed.”

For Kinney, the two outcomes were “common interest in large-scale conservation, which serves a diverse suite of interests,” and a recognition that “we need new models, better ways to collaborate among federal and state governments, private landowners and non-governmental organizations.”

While there were plenty of spirited discussion about the issues, participants largely maintained a tone of respect and a spirit of inquiry. In the end, they crafted a document (with the help of freelance writer Douglas Rooks) that emphasized their shared interests in working to preserve the Maine Woods as the state’s foremost natural asset.

“It is the premise of this report that a variety of techniques and participation by public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private industry and landholders will be necessary to assure that Maine’s North Woods remains a productive and economically vibrant region, that nearby communities prosper, that public recreational access is guaranteed, that wildlife and natural habitats are preserved, and that the values of clear air and water are maintained,” the group stated.

The 1980s were a tumultuous decade for Maine’s forests. A devastating epidemic of spruce budworm resulted in widespread clear cutting by major landowners. The scale of logging spawned a backlash among environmental groups and the public, which questioned whether the harvesting was sustainable or wise.

 
The Passadumkeag River at Grand Falls in Grand Falls Township.

At the end of the decade, the sudden liquidation of land owned by Diamond International Corp. sparked further change. Over the next 20 years, the amount of land owned by paper companies and other industrial owners fell from 7.7 million to 3.2 million acres, while forestland owned by non-industrial owners – particularly real estate investment entities – jumped from 3.1 million to 6.5 million.

As the group stated in its report: “… [P]rofound changes have come to a region that has also been a working forest for more than 200 years. Many of the large forest-product companies that owned the land and supplied massive quantities of timber to diversified paper mills have been replaced by a variety of new companies and owners, creating major new challenges for the future.”

While much of the public scrutiny has been focused on the vast tracts of land in the North Woods, there are more than 4 million acres of forest in southern Maine, most of it owned by people 55 and older. This land faces increasing development pressure – at present, about 10,000 acres are being converted from forest to other uses each year.

Even so, the amount of “conserved” forestland in Maine – land owned by the state or federal governments or by land trusts and other nonprofit organizations, or land protected from development by conservation easements – has increased from 5 percent of the land base to about 18 percent in the past two decades.

Despite the changes, Maine is still the nation’s second-largest producer of paper. While overall production has remained stable, the number of employees has fallen sharply due to both mill closures and technological improvements. On the other hand, new markets are emerging for forest products – from relatively low-tech wood pellets to composite building materials and bio-products that use wood as the feedstock for everything from fuel to industrial chemicals.

Meanwhile, the state has made great strides in adapting its forest practices and management strategies to protect water quality, enhance wildlife habitat and account for non-timber uses of the forest. Nature-based tourism has become increasingly important to the state’s economy, strongly aided by the Maine tradition of widespread public access to private lands.

The Keeping Maine’s Forests study group emerged from its discussions with a sense that, while the state faces substantial challenges, “action is possible, and imperative, on a wide variety of fronts, using established and new conservation methods to protect the economic vitality, recreational opportunities, environmental assets and wildlife diversity of this important region, which comprises nearly 90 percent of Maine land area and represents a significant portion of the state’s economy.”

“… Concerted action now can guard against the many uncertainties about the forest’s future resulting from the recent national financial crisis, and from long-term trends that leave the economic viability of its current uses in doubt,” the group stated in “Keeping Maine’s Forests.”

Participants identified seven opportunities for Maine to “fit the pieces together” and ensure that future generations enjoy all of the benefits that the forest provides.

“What must emerge from the continuing debate about Maine’s forest is a new and balanced concept of diverse uses, where the values of intact ecosystems are balanced with sustainable management and harvesting, where opportunities for recreation and contemplation increase, and where greater economic returns from forest products can be realized,” they stated.

Next month in Fresh from the Woods, we’ll look at the options in greater detail.

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.