ELLSWORTH, Maine — A new report commissioned by the state suggests that Maine can significantly increase logging of softwood trees over the next 20 years, providing a boost to the wood products industry while still maintaining a healthy, sustainable forest.
The report, prepared by the James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town for the Department of Conservation, states that past timber harvesting practices and the spruce budworm outbreak in the 1970s and 1980s led to a large crop of spruce and fir rapidly reaching maturity from an economic standpoint.
The company suggests that Maine could steadily ratchet up logging to the point where, by the end of the 20-year period, crews are harvesting 64 percent more spruce and fir than today without harming the state’s “inventory” of commercial spruce-fir forests.
The independent report’s finding didn’t come as a surprise to staff within the Maine Forest Service.
“What they are saying about where we are today definitely matches the way we see it, and what they say about where we are going matches the modeling we are doing in-house,” said Dave Struble, the state entomologist.
Timber and forest products are part of Maine’s second-largest industry, after tourism. Logging trends in the Maine woods often are reflected in the health of the national economy and, in particular, the housing market. So it is no surprise that the amount of softwood trees harvested in Maine has dipped in recent years — by as much as 25 percent over the decade.
The Sewall report states that, over the past 10 years, the rate of harvesting of spruce and fir has roughly kept pace with the rate of growth. But as the crop of maturing trees increases over the next 20 years, so will the amount of marketable wood.
“Maine’s spruce/fir forest is entering a phase when growth rates per acre will increase each year through 2030,” Doug Denico, Maine state forester, said in a statement. “A growing, stable supply of spruce/fir bodes well for investment and jobs in our forest industry.”
The report suggests raising the harvesting rate from the current three-year low to the 10-year average, which would represent a 15 percent increase to 4.8 million tons of wood.
“Harvest can be further increased to 7.8 million tons by the end of the 20-year period while still maintaining standing inventory of total spruce-fir growing stock at current levels,” reads the report. “This reflects an increase of 64 percent over the period.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for Maine’s crop of healthy, maturing spruce and fir was the budworm outbreak from 30 years ago that killed enormous numbers of trees or prompted landowners to increase their harvesting, some by massive clear-cutting.
Of course, the spruce budworm is a cyclical pest that already is causing some problems in Quebec and eventually will return to Maine. Struble said it is “inconceivable to me that we will not have an outbreak … over the next 20 years.”
So could increased logging hurt Maine’s forests if the budworm re-emerged as a problem?
Struble said active management of the land to maintain a more diverse and mixed-age forest actually can help reduce the impact of the budworm because the pests prefer what the industry considers older or overmature trees. And contrary to its name, the spruce budworm actually prefers fir over spruce.
“If we keep forests younger and keep the percentage of fir down,” Struble said, “although we will still be susceptible [to budworm] we would not be as vulnerable.”
Of course, trees are only harvested when there is a market for the wood, whether for lumber or paper products. So the report’s suggestion that Maine could increase its timber harvesting is dependent on both the recovery of the housing market and a thriving papermaking or pulp industry.