Clearcutting on Increase to Boost Wood Yields

by Dieter Bradbury

Portland Press Herald

September 27, 1998.

GREAT POND - In the depths of the Hancock County woods, loggers hired by Champion International have been doing the work that makes an environmentalist's blood boil.

Perched in the cabs of mechanical harvesters, the workers have carved a 43-acre clear-cut into the side of a ridge, reducing a stand of spruce and yellow birch trees to a dusty clearing peppered with stumps.

This is the kind of scene, unfolding in a cloud of exhaust fumes and sawdust, that stoked two costly and politically explosive statewide forestry referendums since 1996.

And with Champion's new forestry plan, it's a sight that will become a lot more common.

The company, which owns 914,000 acres of the Maine woods, wants to quadruple the amount of timber it grows and cuts on its best lands. To do that, Champion will double its clear-cutting, herbicide spraying and single-species plantation development over the next 20 to 40 years.

The Maine Forest Service says several other paper companies are following suit, hoping to boost their wood yields to address a continuing decline in

the timber supply. The industry trend puts companies on another collision course with environmentalists, who argue that too much is being asked of the forest.

The methods companies want to use - including clear-cutting, herbicide spraying and cultivating single-species plantations - are the very ones the public objects to most.

In the long run, the situation may force Mainers to decide whether they want an unfettered forest that produces wood on its own terms - or a highly manipulated one that works harder for society but lacks a natural feel.

"We're into tree agriculture," says Carole Haas, who heads the forestry committee of the Sierra Club in Maine [Carole is also on the Board of Directors of the Forest Ecology Network - Eds.]. "And for us, that's certainly not the essence of the north woods."

Paper companies like Champion control 7.7 million acres of the Maine woods, or 45 percent of the state's total forest land. In 1997, the biggest landowners logged 301,297 acres, or about 470 square miles.

The amount of wood taken from the forests has nearly doubled, from 3.5 million cords in 1960 to 6.7 million cords in 1996, the most recent year for which state records are available. Spruce and fir, the best species for making paper and lumber, account for about a third of the wood volume.

Landowners increased their logging partly to salvage spruce and fir trees that were killed by an insect called the spruce budworm in the 1970s. In later years, more logs have been taken to support mill expansions.

Last week, the Forest Service issued a report showing that if present cutting rates continue, stocks of spruce, fir and other major species eventually will collapse. The report said the forest is growing only 86 percent as fast as it is being cut, and that wood shortages will occur if landowners don't act now.

"If you look at every major species group, you'll see some long-term concerns about supply," says Chuck Gadzik, director of the Forest Service.

The service's report urged landowners to "aggressively pursue" such intensive management practices as clear-cutting to head off the timber supply problem.

Swanton, the Champion forester, says landowners can solve that problem by improving the productivity of sites where spruce and fir can grow rapidly.

Champion's forest land supplies about 20 percent of the wood the company needs to run its three mills - one in Bucksport that makes magazine and catalog paper and two in Costigan and Passadumkeag that cut lumber for the construction industry.

Swanton says the company eventually would like to get all the wood it needs from its own lands.

The steps involve clear-cutting the existing forest, planting spruce trees or allowing them to regenerate naturally, and spraying with herbicides to kill other species that compete for sunlight or nutrients.

In Great Pond, a township of wooded hills and lakes some 40 miles northeast of Bangor, Champion already has hundreds of acres of land under this form of "intensive management," as foresters call it.

Scattered among large stretches of growing forest, the high-yield lands are ugly.

All the trees have been clear-cut, leaving a jumble of stumps, rocks, and grasses overgrown with scrubby pin cherries and raspberry bushes. Wilted brown foliage marks the sites where chemicals were recently sprayed.

But scattered among the dying bushes are thousands of young black spruce trees, reaching for the fading sunlight of a day in late September.

"We can get two or three feet of growth a year from black spruce once the trees are established," says George Motta, the company's timber and forestry operations manager.

That kind of growth will triple or quadruple the average wood yield per acre in Maine. Swanton estimates that Champion can achieve these yields on as much as 40 percent of its lands.

As the high-yield forestry is phased in, Champion would have to increase its clear-cutting, perhaps doubling last year's figure of 4,023 clear-cut acres. Herbicide spraying, tree-planting and hand-thinning of young forests would also increase, at a cost of $100 to $200 an acre.

Under the Compact for Maine's Forests, the hotly debated forestry proposal that voters rejected at referendum last November, Champion would have been allowed to clear-cut as many as 9,140 acres.

Even though the Compact was not accepted by voters, Swanton says Champion will abide by the limits.

He adds that Champion has no choice but to boost its timber yields if it wants to keep its mills running.

Those mills, and the company's forest lands, provide 1,400 jobs, pay $96 million in annual wages and benefits and pump another $160 million into the economy yearly in the form of spending on goods and services.

"We'd have to re-think everything if we can't grow trees the best way we know how," Swanton says.

But environmentalists contend the industry wants to cut its way out of a problem created by cutting.



Haas said the overall growth rate in the woods has declined, and if it needs to be improved, the state should look for methods other than the highly mechanized ones proposed by industry.

Rob Bryan, a forester on the staff at Maine Audubon Society, questioned the ecological effect of creating many high-yield sites in the forest.

He said most of those sites naturally grow oak, maple or birch trees, rather than the spruce and fir favored by industry, and that changing the composition of the forest on a broad scale could have unknown consequences.

"If they put a plantation in, it may take several hundred years to get back to a natural forest composition," he said.

Haas maintains that the public won't stand for a big increase in clear-cutting or herbicide spraying.

But they may have to get used to it.

Gadzik, the forest service director, says several of Maine's major landowners are revising their forest management plans, looking for opportunities to boost tree growth on productive sites.

"It's being done to meet their wood supply needs long-term," he said.

The leading practitioner of clear-cutting in Maine, Sappi, is selling its lands. But the new owner will likely find it necessary to use similar methods, since it, too, will face the timber supply problem.

At Champion, Swanton says high-yield forestry is just one part of a comprehensive plan designed to balance the company's need for wood with the public interest in wildlife, clean water and recreation.

To protect those values, 20 percent of Champion's forest has been identified as a protection or "special value" area, where logging is restricted or prohibited to protect sensitive areas along rivers or streams, popular recreational sites or rare stands of trees.

On rivers and major streams, the company limits logging within 660 feet of the water to protect wildlife habitat and prevent erosion. That's a much wider protective swath than the 75-foot standard imposed under Maine law.

"It's far more conservative - and far more aggressive, if you will - than anything I'm aware of in the country," says Gary Donovan, the company's chief wildlife biologist.

On another 40 percent of its land, Champion is practicing methods that emphasizes a more natural forest, with selective cutting to maintain a diverse combination of softwood and hardwood trees.

Swanton says the company's plan was developed after consultations with environmental groups, loggers, public officials, sportsmen and others with an interest in the timberlands.

Most of Maine's big landowners have agreed to participate in a similar program designed to integrate wood supply and environmental concerns, called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

But the industry's assurances may not convince the public the forest is being well managed. Only two years ago, widespread fears about damage to the woods led to the Ban Clearcutting referendum.

That vote, a prelude to the forest compact, ignited a $9 million public relations campaign by landowners and environmental groups and a tortured debate that did little but polarize Maine voters.

As Haas, a supporter of the Ban Clearcutting proposal, puts it, the industry's definition of a "sustainable" forest is open to interpretation.

"We're trying to sustain a naturally functioning ecosystem," she says. "They're trying to sustain profit levels."


Reprinted with permission of The Portland Newspapers of Portland, Maine. Reproduction does not imply endorsement.