By Joe Ranken
When Verso Paper Co. announced the impending closure of its faltering Bucksport paper mill and the loss of 500 jobs, workers were stunned, and a collective groan of dismay rippled through Maine’s forest products industry.
The closure of a big market for wood in a state with fewer and fewer of them is a big deal. It’s even bigger when it’s part of a long-term trend: Verso Bucksport is one of three such announcements this year alone, and mill closures have been occurring with dismaying regularity for years.
Changes like these will undoubtedly influence what the forests of the future look like, especially the forests in southern Maine.
But just as a person growing up in Maine around the time of the American Civil War could never have envisioned the resurgence of the forest in what was agricultural landscape, those whose boots are in the woods today can’t predict what southern Maine’s now-forested landscape will look like 100 or 150 years from now, how much of the land will be in forest, how healthy the woods will be, or how much wood they will produce.
There are too many variables in the equation.
Among those variables are wood markets, the locally grown movement, invasives, climate change, efforts to educate landowners about forest management, transfers of forestland, housing trends, forest fragmentation, land trusts, genetically modified trees and the woods workforce.
Many of these are related to each other. How one develops has a domino effect. Causes and effects will cancel each other out. Or they will meld and support each other.
The overall trend may become apparent after a few more decades. Then again, the most important factor crafting Maine forest future could be something that’s on no one‘s radar screen right now.
Right now, southern Maine is blessed with an abundance of wood and markets for much of it, “but it’s chilling to us when we hear about the Bucksport mill closing down,” said Don Cole, who runs Trees Ltd., a Sidney logging firm. “Any time one of these mills goes away, it’s bad for the industry.”
Right now, the forests of southern Maine have a diverse mix of species and wood of a variety of quality, Cole said. “The more of these local markets we have, everybody gains from that. If the market system remains intact we’ll have a nice forest.”
Andy Shultz, the landowner outreach forester for the Maine Forest Service, sums up the effect of markets this way, “No markets, no management. How do you pay for management in places that have no market?”
Closely related to demand is supply. But the current ample supply is due to decisions made decades ago.
While Maine has an ample supply of wood, much of it is owned by people who see it as something other than timber. A sizable percentage of today’s landowners don’t plan to harvest trees.
Educating landowners about the benefits of periodic harvesting is the focus of a new state program, the Healthy Maine Forests Program. It is designed to show Maine landowners that no matter what the goals for their land –recreation, solitude, wildlife, income – forest management can contribute.
Tom Doak, the executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, which represents hundreds of small forestland owners, said that while it’s important to educate current landowners about the benefits of good forest management in hopes they will harvest timber and contribute to the state’s wood-based economy, even if they are disinclined to harvest, sooner or later a future owner will be.
And while many landowners say they own forest in order to pass it on to their heirs, sometimes the heirs aren’t really interested.
Conservation easements and donations to land trusts can carry many stipulations. Not all are written to allow harvesting of timber, even in the name of improving the forest.
That, combined with the whole generational transfer question, can lead to fragmentation, something long seen as an issue for productive forests. Some say fragmentation seems to have slowed as the lure of a house in the woods diminishes.
Even the local food movement could factor into making the future of Maine’s forests. Sampson said the growth of the farm-to-table movement and its emphasis on locally produced food and other natural materials could spark more interest in local woods. But it could also spur the conversion of forestland back into agriculture.
Along with the issue of landowners being willing to harvest and the markets being there to sell forest products, is the question of whether there will be people willing to do the harvesting.
Over everything, of course, hangs the specter of climate change, though because forests change very slowly, given the average life of a tree, radical changes in the makeup of species due to a warming of the planet might not be seen within our 100-to-150-year outlook. The future of Maine’s forests will be influenced by the decisions made today.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, natural history and sustainability from his home and woodlot in New Sharon.