December 15, 2017
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Let’s celebrate the success of public lands forestry, not ruin it

By Robert S. Seymour, Special to the BDN
Courtesy of Maine Forest Service | BDN
Courtesy of Maine Forest Service | BDN
This white pine tree exhibits damage from a disease that causes needles to change color and drop off; it has lost a lot of needles in the section of the tree some distance below the crown.

The LePage administration’s proposed merger of Maine’s Bureau of Public Lands with the Maine Forest Service, along with its proposal to increase timber harvests on public lands, is a serious threat to the bureau’s long legacy of excellent forestry in Maine. It should die a quick death in the Maine Legislature. The rationale offered to support these misguided proposals is not supported by the facts, and it falsely paints a negative picture of what truly has been a remarkable success story in stewarding Maine’s public forests.

I am a 35-year member of the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources faculty and have served on the Bureau of Public Lands’ Silvicultural Advisory Committee for nearly 30 years. I personally derive great satisfaction from its remarkable success as a model management agency for Maine’s public forests and take my students to these lands whenever possible.

There is much that concerns me about the administration’s rhetoric over Bureau of Public Lands, but what bothers me most is the implication that this great legacy has somehow been a failure. Alleged high tree mortality, excessive stocking and spruce budworm risk have been inaccurately used to drive a political agenda rooted in ideology, not science.

Tree mortality is no higher on public lands than geographically similar private lands in the Unorganized Territory. Even if it were, modern forestry teaches that dead trees have ecological value and should not always be viewed as some kind of “waste” or evidence the bureau has been negligent.

Nearly 60 percent of Maine’s public forests are dominated by large, valuable trees, so of course their stocking is high relative to surrounding private lands that are managed more aggressively. This result of patient, conservative stewardship by the bureau’s foresters should be celebrated, not criticized. Because of the prevalence of older, larger — i.e. sawlog-sized — trees, the average public acre is earning at least twice the dollars than the private lands they have been encouraged to be “more uniform with,” all the while providing ecological and recreational benefits free to the Maine people. Further, these highly stocked forests — about 30 cords per acre — are growing at nearly 0.6 cords per acre per year, higher than the bureau’s overall average and much higher than private lands. There is absolutely no scientific justification to reduce this stocking; in fact, we should do just the opposite.

Regarding spruce budworm risk, less than 10 percent of the Bureau of Public Lands’ timber volume is balsam fir, the budworm’s main host. Historical records dating back to the early 1700s show that Maine experiences severe budworm outbreaks only every 70 years or so, twice the interval in neighboring Canada, so we should not expect serious budworm problems until maybe 2050. Defoliation is occurring in Quebec, but that does not mean it will spread to Maine and “take.” Even if there is a severe outbreak, the Bureau of Public Lands’ historical focus has always been to harvest all the fir it can, so its timberlands are at very low risk.

Agriculture and Conservation Commissioner Walter Whitcomb’s notion that moving responsibility for public lands’ management to Maine Forest Service is needed to “ensure uniform management of Maine’s forest” is dangerous and must be resisted. There is no single right kind of forestry. What works for private owners with a strong financial focus is not what we should expect from our public forests, where threatened wildlife species, ecological values and public recreation and access are arguably more important than timber income. The current structure is perfect: The Bureau of Public Lands is a self-supporting, entrepreneurial agency that doesn’t cost the taxpayers a nickel and yet provides numerous public values. Why ruin such a great thing?

Contrary to recent arguments, there would be no synergy in merging foresters from the Bureau of Public Lands with those of the Maine Forest Service. Each agency has a distinct mission: The Bureau of Public Lands manages public lands, and the Maine Forest Service assists landowners, enforces laws and protects all forests from fire and pests. Many foresters from both agencies have told me privately they strongly prefer to keep this historically effective division of labor.

I support the Bureau of Public Lands’ recent, internally generated increase in the annual harvest to 141,000 cords, because it was based on current data and sophisticated computer analysis. LePage’s proposal to raise this by another 40,000 cords, over a 20-year period just to drive down the timber inventory, is effectively treating these productive forests as if they were a mine to be tapped at will for some short-sighted financial purpose. As a professor of silviculture, I would never imagine teaching students to ensure forest sustainability simply by looking at trends in the standing inventory of timber. I urge all readers to applaud the Bureau of Public Lands’ historical success and demand their legislators maintain their status as an exemplary, independent agency.

Robert S. Seymour is Curtis Hutchins Professor of Forest Resources in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine.

 


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