A Balanced Approach for the North Woods

by Jonathan Carter

(This piece appeared as an op/ed in recent issues of the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald.)

It has always been my belief that when editorials attack individuals rather than issues and ideas, it is often the result of the inability of the writer to substantiate or defend their opposing position. I normally don't respond to such attacks, but in the case of Jim Robbin's recent comments (11/21/98 - "Maine Voices" editorial), it is important to set the record straight.

I live in the North Woods. I heat with wood. I live in a wood house. I use paper products. I fish and hike. Sounds a lot like most Mainers. I also harvest my part of the woods using low impact sustainable forestry techniques which produce at a minimum twice the fiber yield as intensive forest management - clearcutting and toxic herbicides. Many of my neighbors make their living by working in the woods or in local mills. In recent years many have lost their jobs as mills have closed down and woods workers have been eliminated by machines and replaced by Canadian or Mexican labor.

In the last fifteen years we have experienced a loss statewide of 50% of all logging jobs and over 20% of the mill jobs. Presently, about 35% of the woods work force is foreign labor. In spite of the economic decline in the forest related sector, the industry has increased fiber extraction by close to 50% and it is currently cutting at a rate twice as fast as fiber is growing back. Northern Maine faces a crisis of frightening proportions as the resource is depleted and the economic indicators (local revenue and labor) decline.

Recently, we have seen Winslow mill close, the Millinocket and Westbrook Mills teetering on closure, and the East Millinocket Mill initiating a restructuring around recycled fiber. This will result in a loss of 300 more jobs. Why is it that Maine mills have the lowest re-investment modernization levels in the country? When planning a move or a downsizing it makes no sense for a corporation to spend millions on upgrades.

It is time we understand, like the shoe manufactures and poultry producers, the paper industry in Maine is on the decline. The reasons for this are many, but the primary cause is that in a global market place these multinational corporations can reduce costs offshore and grow fiber more cheaply and faster in southern climes.

Northern Maine is going through a major economic transition. Unless a big vision plan is initiated, the disparity between the North and the South will continue to grow. In my opinion, there is no reason for the current disparity. With Northern Maine's voluminous natural resources, this region of Maine can experience a revitalized economy based on a balanced approach.

This balanced approach requires us to re think old paradigms and to offer new and creative opportunities and solutions. The three most important approaches to guaranteeing a bright economic future for the communities dependent on the forest are: a shift away from destructive forest practices, clearcutting, conversion, and toxic chemical applications to low impact selective cutting, the harvesting and milling of Maine grown sawlogs in Maine by Maine workers, and thirdly the creation of a multimillion acre national park and preserve.

Numerous scientific studies have documented that clearcutting undermines long term productivity through its negative impact on soils. Clearcutting results in compaction, desiccation, nutrient loss, and reduces soil microbial activity, causing a decline in soil fertility and future productivity. On the other hand, a selectively cut forest protects soil fertility and fiber yield while at the same time increasing job opportunities. It also reduces cost by not requiring expensive monoculture planting and chemical applications of herbicides and pesticides. This is why small woodlot owners, who do not clearcut or herbicide, have twice the growth rate as lands managed using industrial intensive management techniques.

Currently, Maine exports to Canada for milling about 35% of our sawlogs. While it is true that Maine imports more wood in terms of volume than it exports, the wood imported is primarily low quality pulp while the wood export is high value sawlogs. The exported sawlogs represent a much greater dollar loss to Maine's economy than the value of the wood imported. The export results in a loss of about five thousand jobs. Jobs which rightfully belong in Maine, and if kept in Maine, would revitalize the northern Maine economy.

The irony is that Canadian loggers cut much of the wood exported and all of the wood imported. Maine loggers have been replaced by cheaper subsidized Canadian labor. This represents an unfair labor practice and should be challenged under the Canadian Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA.

Finally, we must come to embrace the concept that a forest can "work for us" in ways other than as a fiber farm. A forest can work for us by protecting biological diversity, as a sink for greenhouse gases, as a source of clean air and water, and as a place of recreation and spiritual enrichment. If on a willing seller -- willing buyer basis we could piece together a National Park and Preserve such as is being suggested by RESTORE: The North Woods, it would "work for us" by not only protecting the biological integrity of the forests, but by offering an economic opportunity which could replace the widening economic hole as the paper industry retreats.

Those who would have us believe that a National Park and Preserve would destroy the Maine economy are looking to the past and need to embrace a future which balances public lands and sound silviculture. Acadia National Park generates over a hundred million dollars a year, and a world class National Park and Preserve would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the very part of the state where economic investment is desperately need.

A National Park would allow access and traditional uses on much of the land. What better legacy could we leave our children and grand children than a restored forest on an Alaskan scale? If we are serious about turning our back on the past and endorsing a bright future of economic renewal, we must start by maximizing the value of our natural resources. This will require a balance approach which endorses low impact forestry, utilizes Maine loggers and sawyers to process Maine grown wood, and the creation of the second largest National Park and Preserve in the lower forty-eight. These are the pathways to follow as we head into the next millennium.