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Resurrection of a forgotten forest.

On a fall day in 1985, Gordon Mott drove along a forest road in north-central Maine. He skirted the dramatic massif of 5,267-foot Mt. Katahdin, Maine's highest peak, and bumped his way into a rolling and isolated stretch of woods.

Mott, a respected Maine forester, was en route to a 29,537-acre parcel-part of one of the nation's most farsighted land donations-that 30 years earlier had been given to the people of Maine to develop an exemplary working forest. The land sat dormant for nearly three decades until the early 1980s, when officials decided it was time to achieve its lofty mission. A management plan was written, and logging crews went to work on 3,000 acres.

As Mott drove to the site that day five years, ago, he thought about what had compelled him to drop his daily work and make this trip. He had heard the logging crews were doing their jobs too well. And the visit confirmed his worst fears.

"It was exploitive logging," he recalls. "It certainly wasn't a model."

Crews cut the best trees, dragged them through the understory, and limbed them alongside new roads of questionable quality, creating wide rows of slash. The operation left poor seed stock, encouraged growth of low-value trees, ignored wildlife habitat, and washed sediment from roads.

One forester had been assigned to oversee 13 crews. And worse, all this activity had occurred during a period of low wood prices. Mott felt the operation betrayed the land's mission, and he claimed it was economically unjustified. Others agreed. Mott's findings caused an uproar; cutting ceased, and a committee of forest professionals convened to determine how to make things right.

The committee recommended shuffling management and, most important, creating a new position of resource manager to focus solely on meeting the forest's goals. Both recommendations were adopted.

Five years later, a pickup winds along the same road Gordon Mott drove. At the wheel is Jensen Bissell, a 35-year-old forester hired in 1986 as resource manager for the Baxter State Park Scientific Forest Management Area.

Bissell is part practical woodsman, part forest philosopher. He's at ease discussing the merits of particular equipment with seasoned loggers, and equally lucid arguing the need for a new relationship between society and forestry. And he's thankful for the opportunity these 29,537 acres provide to explore that possibility.

"As we get more people in the world," says Bissell, "we end up with more demands on forest resources and more of a requirement that management of those lands address a wide variety of needs in a responsible way."

So far his thinking is paying off. Bissell's new plan for the Scientific Forest Management Area (SFMA), now in its second year, has won applause from a wide range of forest interests. The plan is an attempt to show that a working forest can be managed for a variety of values-aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, silvicultural-and still be profitable in the long run.

Bissell stresses long run." The SFMA was established as a working forest, not an experimental forest, so in order to serve as an example, it must be profitable. However, management decisions must never be driven by immediate economic needs, Bissell says. "There is value in treating the land ethically-how you harvest the wood, and what attention you pay to the integrity of the land as you set up your methods. Good forestry does not have to mean short-term economic forestry."

This emphasis differs dramatically from the approach exhibited by many large corporate landowners with mills to feed and quarterly earnings to report. Yet given the rise of public concern over the future of the nation's forests, particularly in the Northeast, the SFMA could become a valuable model.

"Somewhere along the line in forestry, we seem to have missed the boat," says Bissell. Many practices developed by the profession now meet strong opposition, which has resulted in a loss of public confidence. "Here perhaps we have an opportunity to mesh things and over time have a public that's aware of what we're doing, and in agreement with it," he says.

Jensen Bissell constantly marvels at how the SFMA came into existence in the first place, and that's why today he stops his truck on a bridge to gaze upon a vast expanse of land.

A lake curves away in the foreground. Around both sides of the lake, forest sweeps up to a horizon dominated by Mt. Katahdin and other high peaks of north-central Maine. Every time I cross this bridge," says Bissell, "I'm struck with the notion that one man owned all that. And he gave it away. "

The man was Percival P. Baxter. Born into a wealthy philanthropic family, Baxter served as Maine's governor from 1921-1925. He hiked throughout the high-peaks area and developed a passion for its wild beauty-and contempt for its destruction. Pulp and timber companies owned the land, and he saw a need for preservation.

As governor, Baxter proposed that the Maine legislature appropriate funds to purchase Mt. Katahdin and the surrounding forests. Political squabbling grounded the idea. But Baxter remained undaunted. He personally bought 201,018 acres over 30 years and gave them to the people of Maine as Baxter State Park. His initial idea was to leave the land "forever wild" and free from development.

But Baxter, a world traveler, later toured the orderly, manicured forests of Scandinavia. The results of intensive management there contrasted sharply with the cut-and-move-on operations then prevalent in Maine. Baxter resolved to provide a place in Maine where enlightened practice could flourish.

So in 1955 he made an exception to his "forever wild" concept and dedicated 29,537 acres in the northwest corner of the park to the pursuit of scientific forestry." The remaining 171,481 acres became the largest wilderness area in New England.

Baxter said the scientific area should become "a showplace for those interested in forestry ... where reforestation and scientific cutting will be employed ... an example and an inspiration to others."

Interestingly, the former governor excluded legislators from management. He put in charge a three-person authority that consisted of Maine's attorney general, commissioner of inland fisheries and wildlife, and director of the state Forest Service. To fund park operations he created an endowment, which has grown to $23 million.

When Baxter created the SFMA, distinguishing good forestry from bad was simple. Good forestry was rooted overseas. Bad forestry was rampant in Maine, where industry cut wood with disregard for the future. Since then, all of Maine forest owners have adopted methods that fall under the heading scientific." Today, judging what's good or bad is a matter of opinion. That being the case, what role does the SFMA play?

This forest's value, according to Bissell, lies in its freedom from the whims of corporate boards and stockholders. "The stability of SFMA over the long run offers great potential to provide a lot of knowledge," he says.

He notes that Baxter State Park is bordered by hundreds of thousands of acres that recently changed ownership in an acrimonious corporate takeover of Great Northern Nekoosa Corporation by Georgia Pacific Corporation.

Georgia Pacific could now introduce a completely different system of management than that practiced by Great Northern. Bissell points out that the same potential for sale and changing management exists for all privately held forests, which in Maine comprise more than 95 percent of the nearly 17 million acres of woodland. But of the SFMA, he says, "Nobody's going to buy us out. So it (state ownership) does give us the stability to set a course and remain on it for a long time."

That course was determined by looking at the forest's composition and the available markets. Because of widespread cutting and an insect infestation-both near the turn of the century-the woods of the SFMA are a uniform age. They're composed of low- to medium-value fir and spruce, with a component of mixed woods (softwood and hardwood) and low-value hardwoods.

The SFMA's remote location, far from markets, shaped which species are favored. Transportation costs are high, so growth of sawlog-quality softwood trees is emphasized over lower-grade softwoods used for pulp.

Cutting operations focus on encouraging a diversity of age classes. Utilizing the shelterwood system, loggers remove about a third of the trees from stands. The poorest trees are targeted, with the healthiest softwoods left standing to provide seed and shade for new growth. Trees are marked for cutting. Low-quality trees that benefit wildlife are marked differently and left standing.

Crews limb trees in the woods and leave slash to decompose into soil nutrients. Trees are carefully yarded via new, quality roads, divided into piles of sawlogs or pulpwood, and hauled off to mills.

Plans call for letting thinned stands grow for 10 to 15 years, allowing younger softwood trees to reach heights of five to 10 feet. At that point, larger trees will be harvested and healthy growing stocks will be in place.

Shelterwood cutting has covered approximately 400 acres. Operations are currently kept small while Bissell accrues data on the cost and time involved in emphasizing quality logging.

The forester says the SFMA is capable of accommodating a much larger timber harvest, but high volume is not a current goal. "Right now," he says, "I want to implement operations-even on a small scale-that we feel are acceptable. "

As stands of trees come under various stages of management, SFMA officials will post interpretive signs and conduct tours to help the public understand the goals, methods, and results of forestry. Such public education is vital, according to Bissell, not only because of the public's rising influence in forest policy but also because most people draw conclusions from what they see.

"I think it's a big mistake to deny the public's perceptions," says Bissell, "For a long time, those of us in forestry have simply refused to acknowledge public opinion. But if we want to be successful, we just can't say, Don't worry-in 10 years this cut will look good.' We have to be able to point to something and say, 'In 10 years this cut will look like that area over there."'

Equally important is Bissell's vision of the SFMA as a place for corporate decision makers to visit and see that economic forestry can coexist with other values.

And if that's what happens when someone drives the road past Mt. Katahdin in remote Baxter State Park, then Percival Baxter's dream of providing "an example and inspiration to others" will have been fulfilled.
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Title Annotation:Maine
Author:Gerard, John (English missionary)
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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