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Plan to Hike Timber Harvest on Maine Public Lands Generates Concern
10/01/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages 400,000 acres of forestlands, plans to significantly increase the amount of wood it cuts every year. At the request of the LePage administration, the BPL will increase the harvest nearly 30 percent between now and 2015. Compared to other large commercial landowners in Maine, the public lands will still contain more cords of wood per acre. But as Susan Sharon reports, the plan is generating some concern.

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Forestry 3

Timber is harvested on Maine public land in the town of Bradley.

Not far from Bangor, this tree thinning operation on a 9,500-acre block of forest in the town of Bradley is one example of how the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands manages for timber. The site was heavily cut by the previous owner. There are several protected bogs on the parcel, a few leased camp lots and a snowmobile trail.

The smell of fresh cut balsam fir hangs in the air as a large, eight-wheeled machine plucks trees from the woodlot and carries them to a pile by the side of the road. BPL has been trying to encourage higher value species to grow here.

"Looking at this stand here - I couldn't tell you on the uncut if that's 23 or 28 or 21 cords an acre," says Chuck Simpson, the eastern regional manager for public lands, says by just looking at the stand he can't tell how many cords of wood per acre remain. And he doubts that the public will be able to tell the difference when the harvest is increased in three years time.

"You're talking about reducing our standing inventory of trees we have standing there by about 23 now, down to 21-and-a-half, so you're talking about - what? - a 6.5 percent reduction," Simpson says. "The key thing would be, I think, to stay within our policies and guidelines and that type of thing, and try to make sure that our quality stays the way it has been, which has been really high, you know?"

BPL administrators are confident they can increase the harvest without jeopardizing standards set by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council. Both certification programs review commonly accepted values for protection of biodiversity, water quality, wildlife and sustainable harvests, including regeneration. And both require regular audits.

But the decision to increase the harvest didn't come from foresters - it was prompted by a series of questions posed by the governor's office in an email to the Maine Forest Service and Bureau of Parks and Lands in April. Among other things, the governor wanted to know how much additional wood could be sustainably harvested on public lands and how much revenue that would generate.

"You can't just let the forest grow and grow and grow, increasing forever, because it will outgrow its capacity and it isn't a well managed forest," says Will Harris, the director of Parks and Lands. He says the question made sense following a 2011 forest inventory that showed the amount of wood growing on public lands had increased by an average of 1.5 cords an acre.

"We have things like over-mortality and over-risk for disease," he says. "So we had this discussion after the inventory was done about what should our stocking level be?"

The Forest Service initially lobbied for a stocking level of about 20 cords per acre. That amount is closer to the level of some of the better-managed industrial forests in Maine. But public lands are managed for multiple use, not just timber harvesting. And Harris and other staff at BPL objected. Eventually both sides settled on a stocking level of 21.5 cords per acre. Over the past year the timber harvest, which had been about 128,000 cords, was increased to 140,000.

"What we're planning on is next year take it 160,000 cords, and then the following year 180,000 cords, and then hold at that level for about 20 years," Harris says.

"The forests are being looked at as a cash cow for the administration, and they want to cut more so that they can generate more revenue for whatever their latest pet project is," says Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Johnson says over the past 30 years, public lands have been managed well. But she says the move to harvest more wood represents a major policy shift. She pegs the increase at 40 percent, if you compare what was cut in 2012 to what is planned for 2015.

"One of the reasons I'm concerned is that all this is being done in secret," Johnson says. "There's been no public discussion, no policy discussion, no public meetings, and that raises a huge, big red flag for us."

Dr. Malcolm Hunter, a leading conservation biologist at the University of Maine, is worried about the ecological effects of increased cutting on mature forests. Big, old trees are important for biodiversity and wildlife.

"The bureau has a much larger portion of its land base in that condition than virtually any other landowner, and I'm afraid that increasing the allowable cut will substantially decrease the portion of the lands owned by the state that are in this more mature condition," Hunter says.

Hunter is a long-time member of the Silvicultural Advisory Committee, created about 30 years ago to advise the bureau on its forest management practices. He and several other committee members interviewed for this story say they think the state will need to hire more foresters to ensure the work is done well.

They also want to make sure that any revenue generated from timber sales goes back into supporting conservation, recreation and other programs at the bureau. But most say they do think the harvesting plan can be done sustainably.

"I'm not alarmed - the principles of it, and how it happened, bother me a little bit," says Dr. Robert Seymour, of the University of Maine. Seymour - considered by many to be Maine's silvicultural guru - has performed past certification audits on BPL lands.

"The biology of it, I think, and the numbers part of it - I think probably that amount could probably be sustained for certainly a period of time," he says, "because they are growing more, right? That's the good news story here."

BPL foresters will check the biology and the numbers at five-year intervals and make adjustments accordingly. Bureau Director Will Harris says the main message coming from the LePage administration is that the harvesting plan must not interfere with forest certification.

Photos: Susan Sharon

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