By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future writer
The research topics are varied. From what types of forest Canada lynx need to how well herbicides do at helping young evergreens get a head start in a clearcut; how to build a better tree growth model to whether it’s possible to economically thin stands of 20-year-old fir; whether zoning for deer wintering areas works to how harvesting affects tiny streams.
What it all has in common, however, is who is doing the research: scientists from the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit at the University of Maine. A partnership of the university and the state’s large forest landowners, the CFRU tackles real-world research questions. And the results frequently influence state forest policy and even have influence in forested states far from Maine.
The CFRU is homing in on its 40th year of operation and, despite changing forestry laws and changing ownerships, it is stronger -- and perhaps more relevant -- than ever.
“Forestry and forest science is an applied science. In order to be effective in applied science you have to have application. Unless you’re working with those in the direct practice of forestry it’s hard to be relevant in forestry research,” said University of Maine Professor Robert Wagner, who has been director of the unit since 1999.
John Bryant is the regional manager for American Forest Management, which manages Maine timberlands for BBC Land, a private investor. He echoes Wagner. The CFRU’s research is real-world driven and invaluable to the landowners, he said.
“The scientists at CFRU are practical, they understand the real world. They interact with us on a regular basis. A lot of scientists are working on a certain thesis, but these guys try to make it fit the real world. We all work closely to make sure that the research is meaningful,” said Bryant.
“There are other forest research cooperatives, but many of them focus on tree growth or tree improvement. Because Maine is such a diverse forest and has had such a lot of interest from the public in how forests are managed, the CFRU covers that whole gamut of issues. It’s quite a breadth of issues.”
The Cooperative Forestry Research Unit was created during the height of the state’s spruce budworm epidemic, when three million acres of trees -- virtually the top tier of Maine -- was aflame with the rusty red of dying spruce and fir and paper companies were scrambling to deal with the fact that a tiny bug was wiping out much of their inventory.
The companies didn’t talk much to each other, but they did come to the University of Maine seeking some help. UM Professor Fred Knight, who headed the university’s School of Forest Resources at the time, saw clearly that, to be effective at dealing with the situation, he had to get everyone working together, said Wagner. The result was the CFRU.
The unit was officially created in 1975. Initially it was a five-year agreement to engage in forest research with the University of Maine. It wasn’t the first such industry-academia forestry research co-op, Wagner said, but it was probably among the first five in the nation.
If the budworm was behind the CFRU’s creation, it was also, logically, the driver of much of the research that followed. During the crisis the research was directed at issues like timber salvage and pesticide treatments. Later the emphasis shifted to regenerating the spruce-fir forest. The unit did some of the first research on using herbicides to tamp down hardwood growth and allow conifers to get a head start. That project, the Austin Pond Study, was started in 1977. Results were just published.
Still later came research on nutrient cycling and the effects of whole tree harvesting on the forest ecosystem. In the late 1980s researchers looked at the influence of pre-commercial thinning on overstocked stands of young spruce and fir.
Wildlife also became a focus, with pioneering work on American marten, Canada lynx, songbirds, and spruce grouse. Work began on creating new growth and yield models. Even later, CFRU scientists took a look at whether it was possible to do commercial thinning of the regenerating spruce-fir forest, most of which had never been thinned.
The CFRU has anywhere from eight to 13 research programs going on at any given time, by scientists at the University of Maine and other universities and research organizations in the northeastern U.S. and Canadian maritime provinces. Graduate students and undergraduates as well, come to Maine to work on the projects.
The CFRU now has 32 members who together own and manage more than eight million acres of the state’swoodlands, or use the wood from those lands. Members include Plum Creek Co., Katahdin Forest Management, The Baskahegan Corp., and Seven Islands Land Co. But wood products companies like Sappi Fine Paper, Huber Engineered Wood and Robbins Lumber are also members. So are conservation organizations that own timberland, like The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club. And state agencies, such as the state government’s Division of Parks and Lands and the Baxter State Park Scientific Forest Management Area.
They pay dues: about $500,000 in total, which helps leverage an almost equal amount of research funding from other sources such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Researchers say the fact that the landowners are willing to help pay for a research project goes a long way toward convincing others to chip in. Landowner members agree to offer their land for research. And, they choose what research to fund. The CFRU advisory committee, made up of member representatives, meets a couple of times a year to hear scientists pitch proposals and choose where to put the money.
“I think one of the benefits for the landowners is they see every dollar they put in magnified several times from other sources. It’s just the economics of getting things done. If the landowners had to do it by themselves they’d have to come up with a much larger budget,” said Kenny Fergusson, the Maine Woodlands forester for Huber Resources Corp.
Fergusson represents four client landowners that together represent 345,000 acres on the CFRU membership portfolio. He said the range of research topics the CFRU funds is a plus. He mentions research on the effect of harvesting techniques on water quality and that on how various species of wildlife use the forest.
“It’s not all about solely making money from growing the trees, it’s also about protecting the environment and protecting the other values that come from the forest,” said Fergusson. “And then there’s the synergy of having a bunch of different people who care about the woods and face some common questions getting together to learn.”
“What makes the CFRU unique is the landowners all work together in an open fashion,” Wagner said. By its very nature, forestry is a very long-term proposition, everyone involved pretty much faces the same issues and, well, it’s all out in the open anyway: “everybody can see what you’re doing for the next 50 years. There’s no premium on secrecy,” Wagner said.
While the CFRU’s broad research mandate has stayed the same, many of the members weren’t there a few years ago.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s the ownership of millions of acres of Maine timberland changed hands. Paper companies got out, private investors, real estate investment trusts, and even conservation groups got in.
The CFRU membership’s combined acreage dropped from 7.3 million to a little more than 3 million in 2003 and 2004. That posed a lot of problems: dues dropped and the cooperative was on the verge of losing the critical mass necessary for viability. Plus, research was in jeopardy. “There was nothing there to prevent the new owners from cutting our long-running experiments,” said Wagner.
In the end, the CFRU got back the lost acreage and then some. The arguments in favor of CFRU membership were bolstered with the rise in the sustainability certification movement, since the major certification organizations -- the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative -- require support of cooperative research.
The membership upheaval may have actually strengthened the unit. Early on it was pulp and paper companies and land management firms. “Now we also have all these investors, we have AMC, The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Society of Maine. We have very ‘green’ and very industrial members. The diversity of voices at the table is much stronger. Having TNC at the table working with Irving trying to decide on the research priorities actually makes our co-op really unique in the country,” said Wagner.
From a scientist’s point of view, there are lots of advantages to working with a cooperative like the CFRU: actively managed land to do research on, help from the landowner in terms of contractors and foresters. And the knowledge that someone is interested in what you find.
“You have the landowners who need these tools and you get feedback from the usage, where a lot of things we do as academics you do them and they get published, then sit on a shelf,” said Aaron Weiskittel, associate professor of forest biometrics and modeling, who has been doing growth and yield modeling research for the CFRU since 2008. “You get to help shape the management on that ownership and helping to hopefully move things forward.”
Weiskittel’s research focuses on developing new growth and yield models. It involves building hundreds of equations and myriad variables into software that can be used to predict what any given forest will look like 10 or 20 or 50 years in the future, given what we know now about the way various tree species grow under certain conditions
The work is still a couple of years from completion, but some parts of it have already gotten a trial run with CFRU clients.
Daniel J. Harrison, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine, has worked under the aegis of the CFRU researching American marten and Canada lynx. His work, he said, focuses on “understanding wildlife habitat relationships with forestlands and recommending approaches accordingly.”
Harrison calls the CFRU a “really exciting and unique model. It’s housed at a university and the university maintains the independence and the integrity of the data and sets the research agenda and direction subject to the vote of the landowners. That’s a really unique way to do industry research and it maintains the credibility, the utility and buy-in.”
The marten had long been thought of solely as a denizen of mature conifer forests -- the types of trees timber companies want to harvest. Harrison’s research showed, however, that the species is more flexible than that and can tolerate different types of forest management, as long as it has big blocks of mid and late successional conifer forest.
When it comes to lynx, his work shows that the welfare of this stealthy prick-eared cat is intimately tied to the regenerating clearcuts spawned by -- again -- the spruce budworm epidemic. The thick young spruce-fir is the favored habitat of the snowshoe hare, which is in turn the favorite food of the lynx.
Harrison’s research shows that, beginning about 15 years after a clearcut is completed, it becomes prime hare habitat, and thus prime lynx habitat, and remains so for another 25 years or so. But restrictions on clearcuts passed in the 1990s mean that few clearcuts are being created in Maine these day, said Harrison.
Harrison said that because of the impact of forestry practices on the threatened cat a variety of state and federal agencies have contributed money to his research, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And that research has “gone a long way toward shaping the policy and management for lynx recovery throughout the entire lower 48 states.”
Other ongoing research has the capability of having a similar wide-ranging effects in other areas. Wagner is especially enthusiastic about work on the use of LiDAR -- a remote sensing technology that uses laser pulses to “map” a target by analyzing the reflected light.
“LiDAR is right now on the edge of being able to eliminate forest sampling. We’ll be able to measure every tree on the forest. We can actually put a window on the computer screen and measure the volumes” of timber, Wagner said. “Every so often in your profession you see a technology that will revolutionize what you will do. We’ve worked out the major bugs. I’ll admit, I was a skeptic at the beginning. But the ground truthing of this has been really extraordinary.”
The Cooperative Forestry Research Unit’s reach is only getting longer as time passes.
The unit has joined with forest research cooperatives at 10 other universities around the country in the Center for Advanced Forestry Systems. Wagner dubs it a “co-op of co-ops.” That helps supplement the CFRU’s budget with $70,000 in National Science Foundation Funds, but beyond that it magnifies the unit’s research reach and capabilities.
And then there are all the grad students and undergrads who will go on to positions with forest management companies and universities, and continue the influence of the CFRU, and enriching our knowledge of the forest.
Joe Rankin is a forestry writer and beekeeper. He lives in New Sharon.