Volume Five Number Two Late Fall 2001
FEN's efforts over the last six years have had a remarkable positive impact on the forest of Maine. Gone, hopefully for good, are the days of rampant clearcuts. While the 13,815 acres clearcut in 2000 is still unacceptable, this is a huge reduction from the 180,000 acres just a few years ago. As clearcuts have decreased so have the number of acres sprayed with toxic herbicides, down 17% to 25,953 acres. It would be nice to think that the paper corporations have finally smartened up. It would be nice to think that these reductions represent an "ecological enlightenment" and a new commitment to sound sustainable forestry. However, the facts point to these changes being simply a response to public outrage. They are part of a well thought out PR strategy designed to quell citizen concerns.
Since the industry knows that clearcuts and herbicides are synonymous in people's minds with forest destruction, their on the ground activities are shifting away from these practices. Have they instituted long term sustainable selection cutting? The answer is a resounding NO! Selection cutting has declined by 5% in each of the last two years, while shelterwood cuts have increased by 17% and 35%. Industry practiced shelterwoods are nothing more than five year clearcuts. Shelterwoods are a two stage silvicultural regime. The first cut usually involves about a 60% removal, leaving a limited, but heavily fragmented, overstory or canopy. The second cut which typically occurs about five years later removes the rest of the overstory. The principle behind shelterwood harvest is sound - prior to total overstory canopy removal, allow regeneration to establish itself. This would have merit if the shelterwoods were practiced over a sixty year time frame with three or four harvest cycles - much more like a good selection harvest. The five year regime, while slightly less damaging than a clearcut, does not protect biological diversity or ensure long term forest productivity. A 60% first year removal rate combined with a massive reduction of forest canopy causes significant ecological disruptions in forest ecosystems.
Our forest practices should simulate natural disturbance patterns. Natural disturbances similar to clearcuts and shelterwoods(fire, hurricanes, tornados etc) only occur on average about once every eight hundred years on any acre. Small patch openings of less than a half an acre caused by a few individual trees falling over are the most common frequent natural disturbances. Good forest practices should mimic patches rather than once in a millennium events.
The industry has been crafty. How do we fight shelterwood cuts when the public has virtually no knowledge, understanding, or perspective on what a shelterwood cut entails. The word shelterwood actually has a nice benign connotation - "shelter the woods and all the creatures in it". We must work to educate the public about industry shelterwood cuts and continue to apply endless pressure. The industry may be wily, but we are smarter and have the truth on our side.
In addition to the problems with the shift to shelterwoods, the industry continues to harvest at unsustainable levels. In spite of the 1995 U.S. Forest Service Inventory which showed cut to be two to three times higher than growth, the volume of sawlogs, pulpwood, and biomass chips processed continues to remain over six million cords. In fact, over a 100,000 cords more were processed in 2000 than in 1999. The recent state inventory showed no significant change in growing stock trees. While the average number of cords per acre may have gone up to 16.3( mostly due to increases in 1 and 2 inch saplings), compare this with N.H. forests where stocking levels are closer to 26 cords per acre or National Forest lands in Maine where the average is closer to 30 cords.
Industry remains on a binge of depleting the natural capital rather than sustaining itself on the interest. When one spends more than they are putting in the bank, bankruptcy is the ultimate result. Unfortunately, these unsustainable harvest levels will inevitably mean more mill closures, job layoffs, and economic decline for northern Maine communities.
On the positive side, the last decade of forest debate has firmly established in the minds of Maine people, the need to be proactive in the area of land conservation. On the local level, the number of land trusts have tripled. The state has created ecological reserves, which in size are small, but in symbol are a great leap forward in thinking. Major conservation efforts are taking place around Tumbledown Mountain and Mt. Blue. The Boundary Mountains are also a focus of protection efforts. In addition, development easements have been placed on 750,000 acres of Pingree land, and the state is working to establish easements on another 650,000 acres, The West Branch Project. While these easement efforts should, but do not, guarantee sustainable logging, by blocking development they do represent a step toward the ultimate goal of forest restoration.
There is no question in my mind that we are headed in the right direction and that a significant amount of progress has been made. The people of Maine want healthy forests. They want a forest which provides wood and fiber for a vibrant woods product industry, creates clean air and water, protects biological diversity, promotes healthy fisheries, and offers recreational opportunities. The forests of Maine are in transition. Transition is always the hardest part of change. I am convinced more than ever that if we keep true to our cause, out of the chaos of transition, restoration, protection, and preservation, will become the dominant forces shaping the forest's future.