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Friday
Apr262013

The St. John Forest experiment

The Nature Conservancy blends conservation, logging in northern Maine 

The Nature Conservancy owns a lot of land in Maine: some 75 preserves covering about 300,000 acres. They range from isolated suburban preserves to large wetland complexes, small coastal islands to fire-adapted Paddling the Upper St. John River (Photo: TNC)shrublands, and the largest area of old growth forest in New England -- the Big Reed Pond Preserve.

The Conservancy’s holdings protect unique landscapes and ecosystems and threatened or endangered species. The Maine Chapter’s largest -- the St. John Forest -- shelters rare plants such as the swamp birch, the New England violet and the marsh valerian; is home to the stealthy Canada lynx and the pine marten; and is defined by a wild river -- the Upper St. John. 

But there’s something else that sets the St. John Forest apart: it’s the Conservancy’s only holding in Maine that melds conservation goals with sustainable timber harvesting. And it has inspired other such Conservancy experiments across the country. The Conservancy is planning to issue a comprehensive report on its experience with the St. John Forest project this Spring. The full report and an executive summary will be available on the web.

“The Nature Conservancy looks at this project as the gift that keeps on giving. Not only does it yield timber revenue that we invest in conservation, but the other part of the gift is everything we’ve learned,” said Bill Patterson, who oversees the Conservancy’s northern Maine lands.

There has been “virtually no negative feedback to the effect that ‘TNC is cutting wood, you shouldn’t cut wood,’ ” said Patterson. Instead, what he hears is that “ ‘conservation forestry is a good thing.’ It’s a refrain, a common theme. I hear it most often from my contacts in the forestry business, but also from loggers, recreationists and even from people who have never been near the property.”

The St. John is one of the largest rivers on the eastern seaboard. It rises in the highlands of Maine and Quebec, flows north through lowlands carpeted with spruce and fir, past hills covered with maples, birches and beeches before turning east, then south, eventually flowing into the Bay of Fundy. 

Lynx (Photo: TNC)The upper St. John in Maine is still a remote place, five hours or so by car from Augusta. It sees few visitors, despite the fact that the river is a prime wilderness waterway. But it’s an area that is rich in rare plants: two dozen uncommon to rare plant species grow on the Conservancy’s land. Moose are so numerous you practically trip over them. The threatened Canada lynx prowls the woods. The reclusive American marten hunts voles among the spruces. And, always, the river runs through it. 

The Nature Conservancy, the international organization famed for protecting special and endangered ecosystems, acquired its 180,000 acres along the Upper St. John in 1998 from International Paper Co, which was selling off its holdings statewide. Initially the Conservancy simply wanted to protect the river corridor and buy some land for forest reserves. It partnered with an unidentified timber investor in a bid of $35.1 million for the tract, with TNC putting up about $3 million. But the bid wasn’t successful. Later, when the top bid fell through, IP offered the Conservancy the property for the original bid price, but gave the organization only weeks to make a decision. By then the anonymous timber investor partner had put its money elsewhere. In a leap of faith, TNC decided to buy the whole thing and mounted a fundraising drive to come up with the money.

New England violet (Photo: Maine Natural Areas Program)For Andy Cutko, the upper St. John is old growth cedar bogs, beautiful hardwood stands, and paddling down a spectacular river “feeling like you could almost be in northern Quebec.” 

Cutko, a forest ecologist with the Maine Natural Areas Program, knows the area well. He has been there half a dozen times, including once as a member of a TNC science team doing a rapid ecological assessment. The St. John lands “are a remote place with some really neat old patches of forest. It’s a landscape that’s just the size and scale where you can do a lot of innovative and interesting things from a forestry perspective,” said Cutko. “Despite a lot of high level harvesting in the past it’s got a lot of interesting and intact natural features.”

Cutko said the Conservancy has added to the area’s conservation and scientific value by “establishing the forest reserves, which capture fairly large expanses of mature or late successional forest at a scale of thousands of acres that is not captured elsewhere in Maine.” Some 53,000 acres, most of it mature forest, were set aside in two reserves. The Conservancy plans to add another 24,000 acres to those reserves in a phased-in approach over the next 10 to 25 years. Ecologists say a network of such reserves provides important mature forest habitat for animals that require intact forest and helps make the forest as a whole more resilient. 

Then, there is the “river itself. It’s so spectacular, remote and scenic. From an ecological perspective, the first long-term value after the forest reserves is protection of the river with its rare plants adapted to the bedrock geology and the process of river scouring of ice,” said Cutko. The Conservancy established 1,000-foot buffer strips along both sides of the main stem of the river, not only to protect rare plants that grow in the ice-scoured floodplain, but preserve the wilderness experience for canoeists.  

That left about 125,000 acres of “working timberland,” forest that could be periodically harvested using a variety of standard silvicultural treatments, whether overstory harvests, shelterwood, or selection cuts. (Land swaps have since shrunk that number to about 115,000 acres.) But even there the conservation ethic is applied:  small retention patches in each harvest area are left permanently untouched to serve as ecological benchmarks and refuges for animals and plants.

The Conservancy chose to manage the property using an “umbrella species” model, selecting the Canada lynx and the American marten as the two species to craft harvest plans around. That decision is expected to benefit 85 percent of the rest of the species that make the forest their home. The lynx, a stealthy, prick-eared cat, favors the young stands of spruce and fir where its favorite prey, the snowshoe hare, is most at home. Given the fact that much of the spruce and fir forest outside the reserves is approximately the same age -- 20 to 30 years old and growing out of prime lynx habitat -- the Conservancy is now experimenting with different types Harvesting wood on the St. John Forest (Photo: TNC)of harvests in order to create younger spruce and fir stands where the hare and the lynx will be able to pursue their age-old predator-prey relationship.

The marten, by contrast, prefers forests of older spruce and fir. Setting aside the forest reserves helped the marten by preserving large blocks of older trees. 

The Conservancy didn’t go into the St. John purchase intending to continue harvesting wood on the land, said Patterson.

But after the papers were signed, said Patterson, there were still some existing wood contracts that had to be honored and the need to pay the interest on the short-term loan. Ultimately, there wasn’t any reason to take all of the land out of timber production. “Taking that much land out of production would have been tough on the workers and the mills and the local economy. And the timber provides an important renewable resource that people depend on the world over,” said Patterson.

Over the past 13 years, the St. John Forest has yielded more than 250,000 cords of wood, or enough to fill some 12,000 logging trucks; or enough lumber to build about 13,000 family homes.

From 2002 to 2010 the Conservancy harvested wood from 17,467 acres, or about 1,941 acres each year. Excluding the costs of buying and maintaining the reserves, the Conservancy has achieved a net annual return on investment of about 2.75 percent, a reasonable amount compared with long-term timber industry standards.

The revenues would have been higher, of course, if not for the decision to create the reserves. Even the tiny retention blocks had a financial cost, equal to about 10 percent of revenues. The decision not to cut there Birch and aspen woods on St. John Forest (Photo: TNC)meant giving up almost 20,000 cords of wood, including more than 10,000 cords of valuable spruce and fir.

James O’Malley, who has worked on the project as a forester for the past 10 years, said his biggest challenge is tailoring harvesting to meet the Conservancy’s new objectives. Land that IP would eventually have logged, TNC put off limits. Instead, the Conservancy asked that harvesting be concentrated on small uncut areas or stands that had been recently harvested. 

O’Malley said that the St. John model has shown that it is possible to pursue a middle way between the extremes of total exploitation and total preservation. “TNC should be praised for their willingness to blaze this path,” he said. “To incorporate landscape level objectives on a stand-level basis requires the understanding that you’ll seldom achieve all objectives on every acre but -- and this is key -- you must always be able to define your objective (and explain your action) as it relates to the Big Picture.”

Patterson acknowledges that “aligning economics with good silviculture (promoting growth and value in retained growing stock) has actually been more challenging than aligning economics with TNC’s conservation objectives.” 

It’s fairly easy to identify and set aside reserves, protect vulnerable ecosystems, and mandate leaving big wildlife trees standing, he said. “However, conducting profitable harvests that balance the retention of good growing stock versus cutting it now has been more of a challenge because it represents the most valuable wood, now or in the future.”

Only two out of every 10 dollars in timber revenues go to TNC. The rest pay management fees, logging contractors, truckers; to build new logging roads and repair old ones; to pay property taxes and other expenses. “The forest really does generate jobs and contribute to the regional economy,” said Patterson.

Timber revenues not only covered early interest costs on the purchase, they also help pay for Maine chapter Open peatland on the St. John lands (Photo: TNC)operating costs and are used to buy conservation land elsewhere in the state, notably the Conservancy’s new Leuthold Preserve in the Attean Pond area south of Jackman. 

While the St. John generates what Patterson calls a “modest return,” not all of the benefits can be measured in dollars. The project has given Conservancy staff a new appreciation for the difficulties faced by commercial timberland owners and in turn that has given the Conservancy added credibility with those same landowners. 

Looking ahead, there are challenges.

It can be difficult to find logging contractors willing to work in that remote area. 

And while harvests are expected to improve over the long-term, the next 10 years or so could be lean, simply because of the age of the forest. O’Malley said generating a greater percentage of income from juvenile forests -- acreage cut four decades ago during the height of the last spruce budworm epidemic and now heavily stocked with pole-sized conifers -- will be a focus.

Then there are the moose. The St. John Forest has a tremendous number of moose, up to eight per square mile by some estimates. “The absolute devastation caused to young hardwood trees” is something that leaps St. John woodyard (Photo: TNC)out at a visitor, said Patterson. The Conservancy is working with state wildlife biologists to get a better handle on moose numbers and their impact on forest health.

The Conservancy also wants to consider options for increasing recreation, which has been declining. That could include partnering with other groups, organizations or businesses. That goes hand-in-hand with publicizing the St. John experiment and promoting public enjoyment of the land. Patterson said while a lot of people like the idea of pairing sustainable forestry with conservation objectives, too few have actually been there and seen it in the raw. It’s just a long way to travel. 

After almost 14 years of TNC ownership, Patterson, said one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is how you have to work with what you have. 

“When we started this it was tempting to write the ideal forest management plan as though we were encountering a forest that had never been disturbed or logged before. Now we know our options are limited by the current condition of the land. They’re also limited by our management decisions, because we set those reserves aside. Despite that we have been able to chart a path to manage profitably and in line with a lot of our conservation principles.”

Joe Rankin is a forestry writer and beekeeper who lives in central Maine.