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Thursday
Mar202014

University Forests: Research, education and income

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine’s Future writer

With not quite 14,000 acres, the University Forests aren’t in the big leagues of Maine forestland owners. No Irving Woodlands or Plum Creek Timber Co, certainly. But with dozens of parcels scattered the length and breadth of Maine, it’s not exactly small time either. 

Some of the woodlots serve research purposes. Others are used as outdoor classrooms for forestry students. Forestry students check out the crowns of Norway spruce in the Demeritt Forest. (Photo courtesy University Forests)Many provide recreation opportunities. Some generate scholarship money. And others provide income for the state’s university system.

“Because we are all over the state we have every timber type you can imagine, except coastal forests like jack pine. We have northern hardwoods, hemlock forests, cedar swamps, spruce-fir forests, pine-oak forests. We have brown ash and red maple swamps,” said Alan Kimball, the university forests manager and an associate professor of forestry.

“When it comes to habitat we’ve got riparian habitat on streams and ponds, we have deer wintering areas and vernal pools. We have a couple of places with rare plants like Orono sedge and lady slipper. We’ve got, well, you name it, enough acres and enough habitats for sure.”

The University Forests include 35 parcels in 23 towns. “These are spread all the way from Gray to Jackman and from Carthage in the west to Whitneyville in the east,” said Kimball.

Some of the University Forests are owned by the University of Maine System, many are held by the University of Maine Foundation. They cover 13,679 acres, said Kimball. The woodlots range in size from a half-acre lot on the Moose River to the granddaddy of university woodlands, the venerable Penobscot Experimental Forest, with 3,857 acres.

The holdings fall into several categories, depending on how they were acquired and how they’re used. 

-- The Penobscot Experimental Forest in Bradley and Eddington was founded in 1950 as a site for U.S. Forest Service research. It was later given to the University of Maine Foundation. 

-- The Dwight B. Demeritt Forest in Orono and Old Town covers 1,618 acres. It was acquired by the federal government during the Great Depression and was later turned over to the University of Maine System.

-- Under the terms of the Department of Agriculture donation, any sales of Demeritt lands have to be used to buy other forestland. The university has sold some minor pieces, including land for a transfer station and two elementary schools in Old Town. Some of the money was used to buy 1,813 acres elsewhere, including adjoining the PEF.

-- There are 19 Green Endowment Forests totaling 2,769 acres. Forest management there generates money The Dwight B. Demeritt Forest from the air. (Photo by Pam Wells, courtesy Center for Research in Sustainable Forestry)that is mainly used for scholarships, internships for students and to pay some professional expenses of students in the School of Forest Resources.

-- There are so-called “outlying woodlands” that belong to the University of Maine system that total 2,923 acres scattered across the state.

-- There are 260 acres of woodlands at the university’s Maine Agriculture Forest Experiment Station and another 303 acres of woodland surrounding the University of Maine itself.

About half the Penobscot Experimental Forest is devoted to ongoing forest research projects, some of them dating back to the first days of the PEF. For a more detailed look at the PEF check out our Fresh from the Woods feature in the archives, titled The Penobscot Experimental Forest: 60 Years of Science. The remainder of the PEF is “managed for sustained income generation for the school and students,” said Kimball. “The PEF pays for a scholarship through timber revenues, timber revenues also pay for maintenance, management and research on the forest, but the scholarship is a priority.” 

The PEF acreage not currently being used for research is managed so it can be used for research purposes in the future. 

A committee made up of two U.S. Forest Service employees and two School of Forest Resources faculty Kelsey Troy hanging a sap bucket in the Demeritt Forest's sugarbush as forest technician Francis Avery looks on. (Photo courtesy University Forests)members control what types of research goes on in the PEF, and the committee members work with Kimball on management of the forest as a whole.

The University Forest most used as an outdoor classroom is the Demeritt Forest. The land was bought in 1939 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a program to acquire failed or struggling farms. It was leased to the university and then, in 1955, ownership was transferred. In 1971 it was named for University of Maine Professor Dwight B. Demeritt, who helped arrange its acquisition. 

The Demeritt is also heavily used by recreationists -- walkers, cyclists, equestrians and runners in the warmer months, snowshoers and cross-country skiers in winter.

Robert Seymour, a professor of silviculture at the University of Maine, said the importance of the University Forest lands to UMaine’s School of Forest Resources, but particularly the Demeritt Forest, can’t be overstated. “It’s a huge asset. Just huge. We use the Demeritt lands very heavily. We’re out there every week. It’s a jewel of a place.” 

Professors use the forest to teach everything from forest measurements to surveying to forest ecology and remote sensing, he said.

The existence of the University Forests, and the Demeritt’s proximity to campus, is a real plus for the forestry school, he said. It’s a 10-minute trip in a van from campus. “A lot of my colleagues at other forestry schools, their forests are three hours north of their campuses. They can’t use them to do afternoon labs, for instance. Just going there is much more of a day-long or multi-day thing,” Seymour said.

Seymour is one of the few professors who use the Demeritt Forest for research. Over the years they have Overstory removals on the Demeritt Forest in the winter of 2011. (Photo courtesy Robert Seymour)“created quite a diversity of things to show,” he said, including “some fantastic examples of white pine shelterwoods and vernal pool management. We have some thinning trials that have been going on for 22 years. And five years ago we put in select white pine trees to research weevil resistance.”

Seymour said one plot of white pines was “put in in 1951 by my predecessor’s predecessor. That’s the year before I was born. Now it’s growing almost 60,000 board feet per acre and adding 800 board feet per acre per year.”

The Demeritt also hosts a maple sugaring operation in the spring and there is a demonstration area for forestry best management practices, such as stream crossings and erosion control.

The Demeritt Forest is also a working woodland. In the winter of 2013-14, for instance, crews performed an early stand treatment on a section where young white pines were mixed with red maple, hemlock and other species. The harvest released the six to eight-inch pines to grow faster, said Kimball.

The purpose of the Green Endowment lands and the so-called outlying forest lands is to generate money to support scholarships and the School of Forest Resources’ teaching mission. Many are so far away from the campus that it’s impractical to use them for teaching purposes or even research.

Towns with University Forest parcels. (Map courtesy University Forests)Almost all the university forest lands were donated. 

“We have only bought lands when part of our forestland was sold and we had to use that money to buy lands,” said Kimball. Several of the bigger parcels were donated after they were heavily logged. “Our management of them right now is custodial. We have to keep up the boundary lines and roads. The goal right now is rehabilitation. Eventually it will be sustainable management with income from forest products.”

Many of the lands came to the university system with conditions attached to the donation. And those vary from property to property. That’s one of the challenges of managing them, said Kimball. He has to not only be aware of the details of each deed and management plan, but also the terms outlined in each gift agreement.

For instance, two lots in Gray are virtually closed to public use by terms of the gift agreement, and there is no public recreation on one parcel in Hudson. All others are open for hunting, fishing and walking, said Kimball. On one parcel, the landowner retained the timber rights for their lifetime.

While the university almost never buys forestland, it is almost always in the process of negotiating four or five land donations. 

Seymour acknowledges that the university forest lands system has been built through the willingness to accept donations rather than a deliberate strategy. But he would like to see the university actively seek out additional properties that would complement, from a forestry perspective, those it already owns. His personal wish list includes about 1,000 arces of upland forest with good, rich soils.

Seymour notes that the university does have money available for forest land acquisition, from the bequest of George Houston, who left the University of Maine $12 million to be used for scholarships and land acquisition. Houston had previously given the university his family farm in Hudson. 

All the university forests are sustainably managed for timber production with adherence to best management practices, said Kimball. The university doesn’t go out of its way to acquire properties with sensitive habitats or University Forests Director Alan Kimball looks over logs cut from the Chapman Lot in Aroostook County in the winter of 2012-13 (Photo courtesy University Forests)threatened or endangered species, he said, but existing properties do host a couple of sensitive species, including the Orono sedge and ladyslippers.

Where there are low-lying softwood stands, whether officially designated as deer wintering areas by the state or not, they are managed as such, Kimball said. The University Forests staff maintains buffer areas along streams and tries to steer clear of vernal pools, though, given their ephemeral nature, it’s hard to map every vernal pool, he said. 

Kimball and his staff will sometimes plan and manage several harvests in a year, with almost all the work taking place in the winter to minimize soil disturbance. The annual harvest from all the University Forests ranges between 1,000 and 2,000 cords.

This winter Kimball worked through a former student who is now with Prentiss & Carlisle to log parts of three stands on the 700-acre Chapman Forest in Aroostook County. It was a sizable timber harvest of several hundred cords, done using two timber processor-forwarder combinations.

Students at work. (Photo courtesy Spencer Meyer)The result, he said, was spectacular. “It was great to see a piece of land where the logging contractors understood what we wanted to do and did it perfectly. There was almost no damage to the trees left behind and the stands were left in a condition where the trees are going to grow really fast. We got a gorgeous result,” said Kimball.  

The number of logging operations can vary widely year to year, Kimball said. “We don’t have a volume target. We pick stands that need to be treated each year. But we won’t have a year with no operations. We have to have some commercial harvesting every year, but it varies,” Kimball explained. “

The challenges to maintaining such a variety of woodlots goes beyond the fact that many are far flung. One is staffing. The University Forests office used to have four positions, but due to budget cuts it’s down to 2.7. Gene Goodine works a processor on the Demeritt Forest. (Photo courtesy University Forests)Kimball is the seven-tenths since he also is an associate professor who teaches a forest measurements course one semester and applied forest ecology and silviculture the next semester. 

In addition to his paid staff, Kimball ruthlessly exploits -- his words -- both forestry undergrads and graduate students working on their masters degree projects. One student did an honors thesis on the Demeritt Forest, a masters student did a project on the PEF and another did a masters project on the Green Endowment lands, he said. All were valuable efforts that contributed to ongoing management.

Kimball said he loves his job because it allows him to get back out onto the land and be involved with forest management, as well as with students and staff. The biggest challenge, he said, is finding the time to get all the work done.

“It’s a full plate. It’s fun, being out on the land, but you don’t ever have to wonder what you’re going to do,” he said. 

Joe Rankin writes forestry articles and keeps bees. He lives in New Sharon