Sustainable Timber Harvests: "This is What Conservation Looks Like"

By Lee Burnett, Portland Press Herald

Rabbits and songbirds can join us as the beneficiaries of responsible logging operations.

SPRINGVALE, ME — When Saco Valley Land Trust conducted a timber harvest on some of its property in Biddeford last winter, the trust faced an issue unheard-of in logging country – the suburban sensibilities of neighbors.

"We got complaints," said Richard Rhames, a vegetable farmer and president of the land trust. "We heard things like 'Boy, they made a mess in there.'"

Log skidder

Many land trusts are embracing sustainable logging to create habitat for wildlife, manage invasive vegetation and earn income for other stewardship activities.

Not long ago, logging was taboo among Maine land trusts, many of which grew out of a preservationist "forever wild" ethic.

But that is changing as land trusts have come to appreciate the multiple benefits of sustainable forestry in managing invasive species, mitigating climate change, improving wildlife habitat, providing community benefits and earning income for stewardship activities.

Examples are growing in number and variety:

York Land Trust clear-cut 18 acres in 2010 to create shrubby conditions favored by the New England cottontail rabbit, the American woodcock and many songbirds; the trust will maintain these conditions with a rotating series of smaller patch cuts over time.

Great Works Regional Land Trust conducts annual firewood harvests on its properties with an eye to improving forest health, maintaining scenic trail networks and earning some income from the sale of firewood to members.

Francis Small Heritage Trust has conducted side-by-side demonstration harvests, comparing the relative impacts of horse logging and a mechanized, cut-to-length system.

But it takes gumption to embrace active forest management in southern Maine. Complaints about truck traffic, noise and the raw sight of a logging operation are common. Following last winter's harvest, the Saco Valley Land Trust is "swallowing hard" about an upcoming harvest near a residential development on Watson Hill Road in Saco, according to Rhames.

"We have a suburban culture, and being surrounded by sprawl, we're in the belly of the beast," said Rhames, an indefatigable explainer of the virtues of sustainable forestry, even the messy aspects. "We tell people, 'This is what conservation looks like.'"

New England cottontail

Carefully planned logging operations can create new habitat for the state-endangered New England cottontail, which inhabits a shrinking range in southern Maine./USFWS

Land trusts and other land managers are showcasing examples of sustainable forestry in a series of events this month jointly promoted as Take to the Woods October.

Maine is primed for new approaches to forestry. Past harvest practices have transformed vast areas of northern Maine into a toy forest. In our favor, forests here typically grow back as thick as dog hair, and Maine's forest-product markets are far more diverse than those in other regions of the country – even with the recent dramatic downsizing in biomass and paper industries.

Today, there's a glut of low-grade wood on the market, but there's also a new generation of wood-fiber based products under development – including wood-fiber cloth, wood-fiber foam insulation and nontoxic particle board.

An emerging opportunity is forestry's potential to mitigate climate change while also generating jobs that boost rural economies. Building more large and tall structures with carbon-storing wood could displace carbon-emitting concrete and steel. This is already happening in Europe, Canada and the western United States.

Another way is to thin the dog-hair woods that are so common in Maine and direct the harvest to displacing fossil-fuel heat. Thinning is not lucrative in the short run, so it usually doesn't get done. If it were done, it would not only boost forest growth but avoid a certain amount of carbon cycling that occurs in the competition for light and nutrients as forests mature.

How to finance that thinning is the subject of an experiment being tried in the western mountains of Maine by the New England Forestry Foundation and the Trust for Public Land. They plan to seek competitive bids for "exemplary forestry" under long-term contracts structured so the cost of thinning is married to the longer-term benefits of faster growth and more valuable timber.

Closer to home, Wells Reserve is working with land trusts on a joint approach to forestry on 10,000 acres that land trusts collectively own in southern Maine. The goals are to accomplish thinnings that improve forest health and productivity, produce firewood for members and earn some income for stewardship activities.

So, next time you're offended or inconvenienced by a logging operation, inquire about its purpose. You might be surprised by what you learn.

(Lee Burnett is project director for Forest Works!, a regional conservation partnership based in Springvale that preserves land and promotes sustainable forestry.)

Read the article online at the Portland Press Herald.