The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number Two                           Late Fall 2001

Building The Ecological Value Of Maine's Industrial Forest

by John Hagan

Why is it that we cannot document a single species that has been lost from Maine as a result of over 200 years of timber harvesting? Given all of the concern about forest management practices in Maine, it might be instructive to reflect on this question, even if we can't answer it with much certainty.

There are at least two potential explanations. One is that you cannot document the loss of a species if you never bothered to document its presence in the first place. That is, we may already have lost species as a result of timber harvesting, and we just don't know it. One of the biggest voids in our knowledge of forest ecology in Maine is how different species use different types and age classes of forest, and how species respond to different harvesting practices.

Left to right: Jonathan Carter (FEN), Jym St. Pierre (RESTORE), and Andy Whitman (Manomet), inspect a large Red Spruce in a remnant old forest stand within the Shifting Mosaic study area in Kibby Township.

The second potential answer to the question is that timber harvesting has been, in fact, compatible with species conservation. Maybe species are more resilient than we thought. No known species has been lost as a direct, or even indirect, result of timber harvesting. Species have been lost primarily as a result of human persecution, or overhunting.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive. Most species might indeed be more resilient that we thought. But, there could be species that are not resilient to forest practices, and that have quietly, unknowingly disappeared, or are in the process of disappearing. The fact that we know so little about how species are affected by various forestry practices is a key factor that has fueled the forestry debate over the last decade. In the face of uncertainty (lack of knowledge) about the security of certain values (biodiversity), the natural reaction is to defend the value with as much vigor as possible.

Even if all species have made it through 200+ years of timber harvesting in Maine, there is no guarantee that they will continue to persist through the next 50 years of harvesting. In the 1960s and 1970s especially, changes in technology, both in the mills and in silviculture began to change the ecological face of the forest, more so than prior to this time (notwithstanding some conversion to agriculture in the 1800s). Before this time, timber harvesting tended to be inefficient by today's standards, leaving behind many large trees of low economic value (but high ecological value), and small trees not yet in their economic prime. Today, even a 4.5" diameter spruce or fir can be used to make a single 2x4. Both hardwoods and softwoods now are used for paper making. There are uses for most every tree species, of every size. We know relatively little about how these technological advances might be changing the ability of species to persist in the contemporary managed forest landscape of northern New England.

For the past 5 years, The Shifting Mosaic Project has been trying to understand whether contemporary (as well as "new") forestry is capable of sustaining native plant and animal species. This project takes place on about 100,000 acres of land owned by Plum Creek Timber Co., and J. D. Irving. Nine different institutions, companies, agencies, and universities are providing expertise, and over 20 foresters and ecologists are involved with the project.

Out of the array of research projects completed or underway on The Shifting Mosaic, the team has documented that certain features in a forest have more ecological value than others (e.g., big living trees, big dead trees, large logs, forest seeps and springs, isolated patches of uncommon or rare plants). A corollary is that certain features are more vulnerable to contemporary forest practices, and possibly vulnerable to kinder, gentler harvesting as well. If the forester is not aware of the features that are more vulnerable, he or she could unknowingly eliminate them from a stand. If the forester manages large areas, the features could slowly, systematically, and inadvertently be eliminated from entire landscapes, and the ability of some species to persist in a well-distributed manner across the forested landscape could decline.

One key reason most (known) species have persisted over the past two centuries may be because even the industrial forest has remained sufficiently rich with ecological features on which species depend. Very little forest is old growth today, but "old-growth-like" features are much more abundant in the industrial forest than most people appreciate. In fact, in the industrial forest there are entire stands, from 10s to 100s of acres in size, that have a high density of old-growth features, even if not technically old-growth forest. These stands tend to be accidental remnants of a time gone by, but they are more frequent than anyone might imagine. However, they are rapidly disappearing because forest practices and timber markets are not the same today as they were when these stands were last entered. Thus, there is an urgency to understand the role these stands might be playing in maintaining well-distributed populations of native species.

Recognizing the urgency, The Shifting Mosaic Project is trying to secure the funds to locate, study, and conserve these remnant stands in the industrial forest. Such stands do not constitute a large total area, but they are relatively well distributed (this is changing). Their ecological value may be disproportionately higher than their total area (not surprisingly, so might their economic value). These stands could be critical to the long-term ecological health of northern New England. Rich with old-growth features, they could be refugia, and future sources, for species that cannot survive in a younger, more intensively managed forest.

If stands and landscapes are viewed by asking this simple question: "What is ecologically most important and most at risk?" we think we can begin to build the ecological value of Maine's industrial forest. The bottom line is to come up with creative ways to retain the ecologically important features of the forest.

The landowners participating in the Shifting Mosaic are encouraging us to identify stands and features that are ecologically important, so that they can be conserved. They have even postponed harvesting in older stands so that we can establish the scientific case for maintaining them. This suggests strongly that these companies want to conserve them, if the case can be made.

Conservation strategies might include high-precision harvesting that retains the key ecological features, or selling easements on certain stands to retain them as they are. One creative solution might be a "moveable" easement, whereby a landowner agrees to retain a certain proportion of the ownership in an older-growth state, allowing the specific locations to change over time (nature would do this anyway). We are already developing quantitative methods to "trust, but verify" the retention of old-growth features. Regardless of the method of conservation, Step 1 is to document their ecological value, as quickly as possible. In a relatively short period of time (5-10 years), much of the ecological value provided by these remnant stands could be lost.

We are in a time of unprecedented cooperation from forestland owners. The ultimate motivation has been public concern about the forest, whether manifested as green certification programs, or large-customers' (e.g., New York Times, Home Depot) demand to know that the paper and wood they purchase is not sacrificing the public's environmental values.

Integrating conservation into forestry is not the only way to achieve forest conservation goals. But in this region, with this landownership pattern, development and integration of conservation strategies in forest management will probably be the defining difference in retaining species vs. losing species in the next half-century.

John M. Hagan, Ph.D., is Director of the Forest Conservation Program at Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, based in Brunswick, Maine.

John Hagan,
Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences
14 Maine St., Suite 404
Brunswick, ME 04011
phone: 207-721-9040

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