Percival Baxter's Scientific
Forestry Management Area
by John Herrick
Percival Baxter was a man of vision. After all, he gave the people of Maine what is now Baxter State Park, including careful stipulations about how it should be managed. He left it to be "forever wild," and we can be forever grateful. Baxter further stipulated that 28,500 acres in the northwest corner of the park be set aside for silviculture and the study of forestry. Baxter had visited forests in places like Finland, Sweden, and Germany. These visits inspired his vision of a special forest here in Maine. This area has become the Scientific Forestry Management Area (SFMA). It is well managed, a splendid example of forestry which does not destroy the forest, and a beautiful place to visit.
After several decades of dormancy and several false starts, the planning and operation of the SFMA got going in the mid 1980's. In 1987 Jensen Bissell, current head of the forestry operations, arrived. Jensen is in his mid 40's, has tousled dark hair and wire-rim spectacles. This man can walk at a brisk and vigorous pace through woods all day long. He may be the happiest man in Maine. He studied forestry at Syracuse and loves the scientific, intellectual side. He worked for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon for ten years and knows that there will inevitably be a pragmatic, economic aspect to forests and their harvest. As head of the SFMA he can combine both, and apparently there is nothing else on earth that he would rather be doing.
The SFMA has been separated into different management areas - harvested previous to 1987, harvested 1987 to 1997, unharvested and unaccessed forest, fire origin stands, and reserve/riparian areas. Roads have been cut through the forest, but they are not accessible to the general public, and they have been designed to have the least possible impact. Nevertheless, there is a certain sadness to roads cut through these beautiful woods.
The tour traverses most of the roads with several stops to get out and walk the woods. On one stop we walked through a section which was harvested last year, crossed a reserve section which has not been harvested, and entered a section which was harvested three years ago. The biggest differences were the slash on the forest floor and the amount of light. The trees had not been damaged by the equipment, the canopy was intact (albeit thinner), and the forest was healthy. Just walking these woods demonstrated that the forest does not have to be destroyed in order to harvest it.
The SFMA needs more baseline information. Although some information goes back a long way (Thoreau commented on the loss of the large white pine while canoeing Webster Stream in 1848), more information is still needed. Information is needed which can be used this year or next as well as 100 years from now. They are collecting temperatures from streams and constantly doing inventories of tree species. They are even collecting population information on Red-backed Salamanders.
In the SFMA, nothing is done without thorough study and deliberate planning. One of the first concerns for harvesting a forest safely and in a healthy way was to decide what equipment to use. Although commercial harvesters are hired, they must use a forwarder and a processor, and they must be extremely careful not to damage any standing trees. The forwarder is a modest track vehicle which has a long arm for reaching the trees. The forwarder creates a path into the forest from which it can reach and extract selected trees. The original plan was to have the forwarder work its way in from the roads every 55 feet, but in actual practice they average every 70 feet.
The practice of overcompensating for the harvesting plan is typical of the SFMA management approach. This is ecological forestry not forestry just for maximizing short-term profits. The SFMA is driven by a profitable forestry plan not by the concept of keeping a mill going at full capacity. This is not a fiber farm.
Having a sound forestry plan and overcompensating for that plan impacts the entire mission at SFMA. The forest comes first, not the profits. Some of the basic precepts of the SFMA plan include no clear cuts and no herbicides, cut the worst and keep the best, and cutting will not exceed growth. The merit of those concepts may seem quite obvious and appropriate, but they are a distinct contrast to most of the forestry practices in Maine. SFMA harvests 900 to 1000 acres a year, extracting about 8000 cords a year from an estimated growth of 10,000 cords. The plan is set up on a 140 year rotation while the industry uses a 40 year rotation.
Jensen told us of a section of old-growth forest within the SFMA which will never be cut. He put in a trail to it last year. On Sunday morning we hiked in to see it, and it was well worth the walk. The ground had the typical mound and hollow topography of an old-growth forest. There were stumps present, but they were all from natural causes - none of tthe trees had been cut. The trees varied in height; small, medium, and huge. The light was warm and glowing, almost cathedral-like. We found an enormous healthy white pine which must have been 250 to 300 years old. It was absolutely beautiful. Less than one tenth of one percent of Maine forests are old-growth. For a state which is known for its extensive forests, that its sad. Thanks to the vision of Percival Baxter at least a little bit can be preserved.