February 18, 2020
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Small woodlot owners a powerful force for future of Maine’s forests

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
Fort Kent woodlot owner Larry Guimond prepares for a day tending his land.

When Larry Guimond talks about his northern Maine woodlots, it’s all about what he is leaving for future generations and what he has done to get to this point.

Guimond, 60, owns approximately 1,000 acres of timberland in Aroostook County, putting him on the high end of what is considered a “small” or “family” woodlot owner in the state.

“I started buying land when I was young,” Guimond said. “I’ve been lucky. I can work the land myself. And for me it’s not about how many trees I’ve cut or what kind of profit I see when I’m done [but] what the land looks like when I am finished on it.”

According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, nearly 90 percent of Maine — 17 million acres — is forested, and 5 million of those acres are owned by small woodland owners in parcels ranging from 10 to 1,000 acres.

“We absolutely need our small woodlot owners in Maine,” Andrew Shultz, landowner outreach forester with the Maine Forest Service, said. “We should care about them and we do care about them.”

On average, according to Shultz, these small, private woodlots are between 50 and 60 acres.

“Taken together, they make up quite a chunk of the state’s forest,” he said. “The mills get a significant portion of wood from private, smaller woodlots.”

Managing those woodlots for commercial harvests — cutting timber to sell at a profit — is among the goals of Maine’s small woodlot owners, according to Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.

“There has been a real shift toward more small ownership of woodlots in Maine,” Doak said. “This means there has also been a shift for the mills now sourcing wood from the small woodlot owners.”

Doak said his group has tracked a “dramatic” shift in Maine timber markets in the last two years, with the state’s large, commercial landowners with huge softwood holdings scaling back their harvesting operations as the markets for trees such as spruce and fir have dropped. What Maine’s remaining mills now want is hardwood, Doak said, and more and more they are looking to the hardwood stands managed by the small woodlot owners.

“The mills need to look at who has that resource,” he said. “Often people make the decision to harvest their timber when they need money, [and] they will wait until there is a need for the trees they have on their land.”

That often means taking the long view, Shultz said, because there can be major fluctuations in the timber market from year to year. Overall, he said, prices on most varieties of Maine timber are down. According to the most recent data from the state department of forestry, spruce and fir harvested for pulpwood, for example was valued on average $12.60 per cord in 2014, down from a high of $17.61 per cord in 1999.

“People don’t get wealthy owning small woodlots,” Doak said. “We have seen a decrease in the value of wood overall, but there is still a market for quality trees and quality trees will always be worth something.”

To end up with a timber stand that could produce some sort of income, takes good management, Shultz said.

His agency employs 10 district forest rangers scattered around the state who are available to provide free land management recommendations through the state’s “ Be Woods Wise” stewardship program.

“Sometimes they provide technical assistance, [but] more often they walk and talk with the landowner to help that owner get a broad perspective on what is going on and what can be done with the land.”

Landowners also can hire “consulting foresters” who take a detailed look at property, inventory what’s on it and then work with the owner to design a plan based on what the owner wants to get from the land.

“Every landowner is unique,” Shultz said. “Everyone has their own approach.”

Laura Audibert is a consulting forester working out of Fort Kent who has prepared dozens of forest management plans for small woodlot owners.

“I work with people who are into long-term care of their land and who want to make sure it is managed properly,” Audibert said. “They want to see a healthy and productive stand of trees — in some cases for their retirement or in other cases they want to have something of value to pass down to future generations.”

Audibert bases her plans on the owner’s primary land-use objectives, which can include commercial harvesting, promoting wildlife habitat, firewood production, recreational uses or aesthetics. The management plan is a sort of blueprint on how to best develop and maintain those objectives through selective tree cutting, pruning and planting.

“Depending on where people want to go with their woodlots, a management plan can be a great step,” Shultz said.

As far as Doak and SWOAM are concerned, those management plans are working, and the state’s small woodlots are in relatively good shape.

“When you look around, on average you see a well stocked forest on small woodlots,” he said. “These landowners tend to add inventory, and the volume of trees is growing fast.”

At the same time, Doak said, small woodlot owners do face some challenges.

“This is an aging population,” he said. “Forty percent of the [small woodlot land] is held by people 65 years old and older.”

Doak wonders what is going to happen to that land when those owners decide they want to retire from landownership.

“Does [that land] get carved up into smaller pieces for houselots?” Doak said. “Does the next generation of owners care about forest management as much as the current generation?”

In northern Maine, Guimond shares those concerns. He is currently logging his land with his son and hopes to one day turn over his entire operation to the next generation, but he’s worried about the future.

“When I started out, you could make a living on your own land,” Guimond said. “Today, with the drop in the price of wood and increase in overhead, a man really can’t.”

Guimond blames a market that is has long been driven by large, commercial landowners who can afford to harvest and produce large volumes of wood for less cost than what a smaller landowner can charge, along with increases to equipment, fuel, transportation and property tax costs.

“I’m afraid those of us who want to make a living on our small woodlots are on the way out,” Guimond said. “Instead you are seeing people who have the money and can afford to manage their woodlots for the future and not cut them now.”

Guimond said he takes great pride in his woodlands, and while he knows he will never get rich harvesting its timber, money is not what drives him to keep going out with his chainsaw every day.

“I love my wife and my children very much,” he said. “But my second love is the land.”

That love of the land and focus on developing quality tree stands bodes well for Maine timber, Doak said.

“Growing for quality is key if the landowner is interested in any kind of economic return,” he said. “That care and pride is often more important in the long run than the actual species grown.”

Shultz said his agency works with groups such as the Small Woodlot Owners of Maine to get information out to woodlot owners, including workshops, presentations, publications and field days on working woodlots.

“The point being, whenever we can get folks together walking in the woods to show them what is going on and talking to each other and learning from each other, it’s a great technique to pass on information,” he said. “We like to call it ‘Woodlot 101.’”

Trees, Shultz said, will always grow in Maine, despite market changes.

“Maybe that makes me professionally optimistic,” he said. “But in Maine we see foresters and landowners continuing to work together with good loggers and when they all come together, you get great results [and] we see a lot of that going on.”

 


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