By JOE RANKIN
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
If you were to use your trusty time travel pod to pluck a Mainer out of, say, the 1870s, and plop him down in the southern Maine of the 21st century you’d undoubtedly have one very surprised person.
He would be awed by the roads and intimidated by the traffic, astonished at the high-rises of downtown Portland, impressed by the jets dropping in to the Jetport. And bewildered by all the forest. For in his time this part of the state has long been stripped of its trees, the lush native forest turned into pastures and hayfields. The forest that was left was little more than tattered remnants of the woods the first explorers saw.
Though agriculture became king of the land decades earlier, in his time it was in the process of being dethroned. And the trees came rushing back.
Today, in southern Maine, there are some two million more acres of forest than there were a little over a century ago. And that forest tends to be more heavily stocked with trees than the vast spruce-fir forests of northern and eastern Maine -- 23.1 cords per acre, compared to about 15.5 cords per acre.
And while the forest tide has peaked, the regrown southern Maine forest is still tremendously important. It helps define the region to residents and vacationers alike, offers recreational opportunities to residents of the state’s most populated counties, and is a natural resource for Maine’s still vital wood products industry.
“It’s under appreciated, under recognized, and under studied,” said Lloyd Irland, a forest economist and president of the consulting firm The Irland Group. “In the future it’s going to be important for wood, for wildlife, for recreation and carbon storage.”
But even as its importance grows, the integrity of that forest is being frayed by suburbanization, and many landowners in the region are reluctant to harvest timber, even when doing so would improve forest health.
The impact of European settlement in Maine lagged behind that of many other areas of the country. For decades it was confined largely to a strip along the coast. But once unleashed, settlers wrought huge changes in the landscape in the span of a few generations.
“The landscape of Maine changed more and faster from 1840 to 1880 than for any comparable period since deglaciation,” writes Andrew Barton in his book The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods. “By 1840 it had taken Euro-American settlers more than two centuries to clear a million acres of Maine forest. Over the next decade, another million were cleared, and by 1880 nearly 3.5 million acres, or 15 percent, of Maine were open farmland.”
Maine’s population bloomed by 500,000 in the sixty years after 1800 and the number of farms increased by 8 percent a year, topping 64,000 by 1880, writes Barton. The railroads came, roads were improved, a burgeoning market for wool stimulated sheep farming, and advances in agriculture and animal husbandry improved farmers’ livelihoods, Barton said.
But almost as quickly as farmers cleared the land, they were walking away from it. The newly opened black soil lands of the midwest and, later, the treeless vistas of the new prairie states, beckoned. The same railroads that had helped bring prosperity to New England farmers took many Mainers westward and, perhaps as important, brought the products of hugely productive midwestern farms east. By the mid to late 1800s most newly-arrived immigrants simply headed directly to the interior of the continent.
In 1880, when the reversal of the state’s agricultural fortunes began showing up in the statistics, the state’s 10 most southern counties accounted for only 19 percent of the state’s forested area. By 2012, the same 10 counties accounted for 4.6 million acres of woods — 26 percent of Maine’s forest, write Irland and Ken Laustsen, the Maine Forest Service’s biometrician, in an ongoing series of articles for Maine Woodlands, a publication of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.
The upshot is that southern Maine gained over 2 million acres of forest in about 132 years, an area nearly equal to the entire land area of Androscoggin, Kennebec, York and Cumberland counties, write Irland and Laustsen.
But if there’s anything predictable, it’s change. The average peak of forestland in the 10 counties occurred in 1982, write Irland and Laustsen. “In five southern Maine counties the percent in forest has fallen by 10 percentage points or more since their respective peaks,” the duo write. By 2012 only Waldo and Oxford counties were still reverting from field to forest.
While the numbers show there’s a lot of forest in southern Maine, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy forest.
The remnant woodlots left over from the orgy of land-clearing in mid-1800s were often hard-used by farmers, said Irland. They were focused on agriculture, not forestry, and saw their woodlots as a source of firewood to heat their large, uninsulated, and drafty old farmhouses. It wasn’t unusual for a family to use 20 cords of wood a year for heat.
“If you had, say, York County, which was down to about 40 percent forest, it meant that all the firewood needs of all those people come from 40 percent of the land, from the 1850s to the 1950s, that’s maybe 20 cords a year per household. That’s partly why the woods are in such poor shape,” Irland said.
“Despite notable individual ownerships, the general story is that in the settled portions of southern Maine there has been poor to exploitive management, leaving behind the lowest quality trees at every entry,” write Irland and Laustsen. “The typical forest owner here has one or two cutting cycles of improvement cuts ahead to bring these forests back to their potential for high value growth.”
The upside, he said, is there’s a lot of wood there and a market for pulp and pallet wood to allow the work to be done.
But these days convincing landowners to improve their woodlots is a struggle. Most of that forest is in small ownerships, and many of those owners don’t see the timber for the trees.
“There is a lot of wood in southern Maine, and a lot of reluctant landowners,” said Jessica Leahy, an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine who specializes in the human dimension of forest management. “The National Woodland Owners Survey for southern Maine shows a lot of timber unavailability. Many of the landowners have never harvested and will not in the future.”
Some of those landowners might not know the value of their timber, or that a properly managed harvest can actually improve forest health, said Leahy. Others might not know how to arrange a harvest, or worry about an ugly outcome. Others just aren’t interested — they see their woodlots as places to connect with nature, to relax, to walk. Timber income isn’t even part of the equation.
Leahy points out that in Kennebec County 48 percent of landowners have never had a timber harvest, according to the Kennebec County Technical Report. Of those, 30 percent wouldn’t even consider harvesting and 32 percent are not sure. Only 38 percent would consider a harvest in the future.
Interestingly, 51 percent of the landowners in that study had a previous timber harvest on their land, Leahy said. And while many were satisfied with the outcome, 18 percent wouldn’t do it again and 22 percent were not sure, she added.
“This suggests to me that more work needs to occur with landowners who decide to harvest, so that they have positive experiences (better preparing landowners for what a timber harvest will entail) and will be interested in harvesting again in the future if it helps them achieve their goals,” Leahy said.
Leahy said the School of Forest Resources has already revamped its curriculum to help budding foresters develop the skills to better communicate with landowners, loggers and others. That should help improve the stats on harvest satisfaction, over time. These days “knowing trees is not enough,” said Leahy, whose describes her mission as helping woodland owners make informed decisions about their woods.
The Maine Forest Service’s Maine Healthy Forest Program aims to do just that by reaching out to landowners and emphasizing, not money, but forest health.
The state forest service “believes that most landowner objectives are best achieved through active management of a woodlot,” said Kevin Doran, a Maine Forest Service educator. The MFS “isn’t saying that you have to manage it. But that management is a way to achieve your goals, whether it’s recreation, wildlife, timber income or a healthy forest. It’s just emphasizing a proactive approach rather than saying, ‘we’re going to see what nature provides.’ Active management means thoughtfully planned activities, including cutting trees and supporting the wood-using economy.”
Tom Doak, the executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, believes that wildlife can have a huge influence on getting people to manage their southern Maine timberlands. “I’ve never met a landowner that doesn’t care about wildlife in some way, whether they hunt or not,” he said. “I almost think we need an extension program that helps people meet their objectives for wildlife, whatever they are.”
Many experts say that the difficult thing is getting people to take the long view. Foresters are used to thinking decades into the future. Landowners are not. “The challenge is to get people to make a decision today that they will never see the result of,” said Doak.
Those involved in the Maine Healthy Forest Program have been working to create networks of landowners, using social media to get the word out about the benefits of forest management, holding workshops for landowners, and designing brochures for landowners, mills and foresters. They have also commissioned a series of well produced “stewardship videos” emphasizing the benefits of forest management.
And, recognizing the truth of the old retail adage that a good shopping experience is the best advertisement while a bad shopping experience is the worst, they have created a detailed online “harvest satisfaction” survey that gathers information on everything from how the landowner got paid to the details of the harvest. Most so far report positive experiences. But even reports of bad landowner experiences are valuable, notes Doran, because they can be used to focus future training efforts.
Irland said people need to remember that the forest of southern Maine is a vital part of the state’s timber supply, fulfilling the needs of paper mills, sawmills, pellet mills, biomass burners, and small seasonal wood products operations. “It shouldn’t be thought of as just a green backdrop” to a service economy, he said.
Just as the southern Maine forest’s importance to the wood supply is often under appreciated, Irland said its potential as a recreational resource could be better tapped as well.
When it comes to non-motorized recreation, the bulk of the work has focused on ensuring public recreational access and building new trails in more northern parts of the state, said Irland. But most people have to travel long distances to get there and they tend to be geared for the serious, and younger, hiker. Efforts to develop trail networks in southern Maine — perhaps in conjunction with snowmobile clubs — would benefit the people who just want to get out in nature near their homes, he aded.
“Southern Maine is where the people are, but in general people can’t get to the forest there unless they own a piece of it. It’s hard to find a place to just take a walk in the woods,” Irland said. “And access to it is being leached away one driveway at a time.”
While local land trusts try to address these issues, they are largely volunteer driven and underfunded, he said. “Recreation requires management and management costs,” he said. “We have a hole in our management and implementation system.”
(Next month we talk with foresters, loggers and mill executives about the challenges they face working in southern Maine forest.)
Much of forestry writer Joe Rankin’s 70 acres of trees was field not so long ago.