Forestry Establishment Ethics Crisis

Commentary by Peter Neils

The recent "discovery" by the forestry establishment that there is, in fact, a problem in our industrial forestland, underscores a conclusion to which I have been drawn over the last several years of research on the forestry issue. That is, that there is a crisis of ethics in the forestry establishment which is so entrenched that it cannot be resolved from within.

For the last several years, experts from the forest products industry have been falling all over themselves explaining the cyclic nature of our forests, assuring us that our forests are in the best shape they've ever been, or that they could address the problem if we just let them practice "modern, intensive management", or that the "environmental radicals" won't be happy until we're all selling tee shirts in that national park of theirs. Yet, the studied denial of reality, or the villanizing of this or that group of concerned citizens should not be construed as constructive civic discourse. As one of the hard working rural people in the forest products industry for whom James Robbins, President of the Maine Forest Products Council expresses concern, and presumes to speak, I feel that it is absolutely necessary that we understand the role which we, as citizens, must play in reframing forest policy in the State of Maine.

Our current policy is based on the assumption that what is good for the companies in the forest products industry is, by extension, good for our forests and workers. It is accepted that they are the experts and can best determine how to manage our forests. It is tacitly accepted that protecting our forests from industrial excess will necessarily result in job losses. Yet, given the decline of jobs in the forest products industry over the last fifteen years, one could reasonably conclude that current policies are doing an adequate job of destroying jobs in the industry.

Individuals within the establishment move from industry to public sector positions and back with occasional stops in academia in a game of musical chairs which results in academic and public policies framed from a resource extractive rather than ecological perspective.

Maine has the highest concentration of industrial forestland in our nation. Nearly one half of our state is in industrial ownership, the average tenure of ownership being less than ten years. It is entirely appropriate that we place a burden of accountability on the major landowners which is greater than that of the small landowner. By using their wealth and the threat of job losses to dominate the public policy making process they have not only effectively avoided this accountability, but have institutionalized their presence to maintain this subordination of the public's legitimate interests. With this model of policy development, we are, at best, managing the rate of decline of jobs in the forest products industry.

Industry's disproportionate influence in the process is such that some long-time members of the Joint Standing Committee on Conservation, Agriculture, and Forestry openly commit themselves to "protecting the interests of our friends in the forest products industry." The idea that they are representatives of, and should be protecting the greater interests of the people of Maine seems to have been lost. A look at the results of this attitude is instructive, if sobering.

The US Forest Service 1995 inventory showed that forest industry lands had a cut to growth ratio of 2:1 (they are cutting trees at twice the rate they are growing), the highest of any identified landowner type. Keep in mind that this covered the period from 1982-1995, which was after the major salvage operation following the spruce budworm epidemic of the 1970's. Stocking levels (the volume of timber) on industry lands averaged only 13.4 cords per acre. This does not necessarily mean that every acre has 13.4 cords of timber on it. But, for every acre with 20 or 25 cord on it, there must be an acre with little or no measurable ingrowth, a result of their "stewardship." In contrast, National Forests averaged 32 cords/acre. Annual growth on industrial lands averaged 0.18 cords /acre, 25% short of the .24 cords/acre/yr used as a figure to define commercial timberlands, and half the .36 cords/acre/year of other private non-industrial timberlands. 25% of all timberlands were in seedlings and saplings. This indicates heavy overcutting and clearcutting. The majority of 1-3 inch diameter trees were in low value fir, red maple, and non-commercial species.

In 1960, 36% of hardwoods cut were sawlogs, in 1991, 19%. In 1959, grade 1 sawlogs were 17% of all hardwood sawlogs, in 1995, 5%. In 1993 the Maine Forest Service wrote ..... "It seems clear that the effects of highgrading [the practice of cutting the most valuable trees from a stand -- take the best, leave the rest] ..... continues to plague this resource."

Considering that virtually all industrial timberlands are in the tree growth tax program, it appears that we are paying multinational corporations to mismanage their woodlands, gratefully accepting the associated loss in ecological integrity, wildlife habitat and good jobs in the bargain. To reverse these alarming figures, our forest policy needs to address stocking levels, overcutting, high grading, and residual stand damage. Each one of these are areas in which industry has successfully resisted regulation, insisting that they need prescriptive flexibility to best manage their forestland.

Given the many unsuccessful attempts that have been made, how then are we to begin to change the direction of our forest policy?

Firstly, let's redefine the mission of the Maine Forest Service. The MFS should be charged with articulating a forest policy which defines and protects the ecological integrity of our native forests. The unholy alliance between the MFS and the industry it regulates must end. Secondly, let's stop subsidizing ecologically devastating forest practices. The tree growth tax program needs to be reserved for forests which meet clear, ecologically sound standards, established by our newly emancipated Maine Forest Service. Let's stop confusing working with business with letting them give us the business.

Thirdly, we need to hold our legislators accountable for their votes. The last session voted for business as usual, ignoring an unprecedented public outcry, so unshakable is the industry's stranglehold on their perception of what sound forestry is. With abundant evidence that expertise in profiteering from our forests does not necessarily entail a commitment to, or expertise in, ecologically sound forest management, let's take the next logical step and reduce their role in policy making and maybe things can be turned around. Ask your legislator to keep you informed on proposed legislation and it's progress in committee, and contact committee members and tell them you expect them to listen to the voices of the people for a change.


[Statistical analysis excerpted from an extensive analysis of the 1995 USFS Inventory by Mitch Lansky.]


Peter Neils, of Appleton, is a professional woodworker, and is active in the Maine Green Party and the Native Forest Network.