Printer Friendly

The moral imperatives of John Sinclair.


Maine woodsman John Sinclair is celebrating. For a half century, he represented others' viewpoints on forest issues. Recently, he resigned all professional connections to be able finally to speak for himself. "I feel like a free man"' he says so exuberantly that color rushes to his cheeks.

And after a lifetime in the forest-management business, John Sinclair has a lot to say. Some are things that different sides in the debate over the future of the forest-in Maine and elsewhere-may not want to hear. For instance, he's against industry's large-scale commercial clearcutting and herbicide spraying, and against environmentalists' efforts to designate more and more forests as strictly wilderness.

Sinclair believes fervently in using the resources of the forest-but with a careful, even delicate, hand. He preaches that encouraging a mixed-growth forest and all-species utilization of wood resources is the only sensible way to avoid the disasters of softwood monocultures, experienced especially on southern pine plantations. Husbanding the forest over the long term is his deepest goal-not a corporate bottom line or an environmentalist campaign. Sinclair's way of thinking is not just a philosophy but a moral imperative.

On a gray, drizzly day, Sinclair is fidgeting with newfound energy in the living room of his ample cabin on Moosehead Lake, just outside Greenville, a gateway to Maine's fabled North Woods. Several months ago, he resigned from the board of directors of Seven Islands Land Company, the management firm he headed for many years for the Pingree family. At the same time, he left the board of the Boy Scouts of America's High Adventure Program, a personal hobby reflecting his keen interest in young people.

"Freedom is really a pleasure," he says as fire crackles in the big stone fireplace in the pine-paneled living room that Sinclair built himself. "I feel a lot less pressure." Despite his 70 years, he has the strong, healthy looks of an outdoorsman. His blue eyes are as clear as a mountain stream, and his thick hands hold an axe as easily as a pencil. "I'm ready to be more critical of people using the forest-the whole lot from industry to campers and hikers, and of government in Maine not moving in a positive way, not setting the policies to make the highest and best uses of our resources."

It doesn't take much talk to realize that John Sinclair is a living legend of the Maine woods, and hours can pass quickly as he describes his convictions and experiences. "The life of a woodsman involves putting in about 100,000 miles, and I've done that much two or three times"-by foot, canoe, and car-"out there," he says, pointing outside to the dark line of spruce and fir beyond the big lake. At one time, Sinclair was personally responsible for the well-being of 15 percent of the state's forest north and west of Moosehead.

For 30 years, he has also been promoting the concept of whole-tree use. He eventually helped establish Maine's new biomass industry, based on using the low-grade material usually left on the ground after logging. And way back in the 1950s, he identified New England's largest remaining tract of virgin forest on Pingree family land and was instrumental in its preservation. Since 1987, The Nature Conservancy has acquired 4,813 acres of the old-growth forest, now called Big Reed Pond Forest Reserve.

Sinclair's talent at weaving issues, from harvesting to taxation, into his stores of woods history and policy make his subjects come alive, from the "swampers" who cut logging roads to the timber baron David Pingree Jr., whose land Sinclair eventually managed for Pingree's descendants. His soothing voice has the weight of authority, experience, and reason. One might argue a point with Sinclair, but his truths come from a life that commands respect.

Richard Barringer, a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, didn't always see eye-to-eye with Sinclair, particularly on public versus private land-rights issues. Nevertheless, Barringer was profoundly affected by Sinclair. "John is the last one of a breed that doesn't exist anymore-the woodsmen who understood the forest, cared about its needs, had strong convictions, disagreed honorably, and knew how to conduct themselves as honest men," he says. "Their successors ants who have a modest competence at finances but lack a real knowledge of the woods."

Barringer sets Sinclair apart from other notable woodsmen of his generation because he is "incredibly articulate. There were times I'd go into a big forestry meeting to speak after John, and I'd think, Gee, what is there left for me to say?' "

Today Sinclair itches to speak out on current issues. He calls "reckless" the tactics of a radical environmental group, Earth First!, which has allegedly spiked old-growth trees on Pingree forestland. He wonders why in the world they would want to "hit one of the finest families and properties in the country."

He thinks the Northern Forest Lands Study (see AMERICAN FORESTS, May/June 1990), a five-state effort, is a step in the right direction because it calls for planning for the future to protect the region's 25-million-acre timber base. He approves of the study's support of tax incentives for private landowners who agree not to subdivide their lands. It also calls for introducing in school systems an educational program about the value of the forests-a move that Sinclair feels is essential if the public is to fully appreciate the forest.

But he's dubious about the 2.7-million-acre Maine Woods Reserve proposed by the Wilderness Society. Sinclair sees that particular plan as "too much of an infringement on private owners. "

Almost 90 percent of the state is forested, and virtually all of that 17-million-acre area is commercial forest-and should remain so," he says. -Wilderness is just a dream by some who think we shouldn't be active in the forest. The Maine forest has been harvested for 200 years, has been through several growing cycles, and is the state's No. I resource. It hasn't been wild for generations."

"A beautiful woodland is useful woodlands, and it's imperative to use the forest to help the world." But he thinks that East Coast urbanites will exert pressure to leave the forest alone and keep Maine as their playground.

Sinclair also has a word or two for forestry schools. "In recent years, they have instilled in foresters a short-term approach toward forest use, as well as wrongly emphasized certain commercial species. Instead, they should be teaching long-term and all-species use," he says.

Sinclair's predilection for taking the long view extends even to Maine's cyclical spruce-budworm epidemics. Many people rail against the budworm's destruction of merchantable timber and spray tons of expensive chemicals to kill it, but Sinclair sees nature providing a bright side. Trees killed by insect infestations return nutrients to the soil and act as mulch for seedlings, he reasons. Disease, fire, wind, and lightning are the natural processes that shaped our forestland long before the first loggers walked into the Maine woods.

His long-range vision and willingness to work within the natural cycles of Maine's woodlands have marked Sinclair's approach from the beginning. He understands that any move against nature's grain usually doesn't work. Today's corporate "factory forest" attitude, with its emphasis on quarterly profits, is as alien to john Sinclair as an Armani suit.

"Anybody who has been in the woods any time at all learns that trees grow slowly," Sinclair explains, and you have to adjust your thinking, not to yearly crops, as on a farm, but to a half century or more ahead."

Observations like that are all to the good when read in a forestry textbook, but Sinclair comes by his attitudes from direct experience. He doesn't hold a university degree. In fact, he never graduated from high school. His knowledge of the woodlands he so obviously loves springs from a lifetime of living with branches over his head and running water under his boots.

It would be difficult, probably impossible, to find a stream Sinclair hasn't canoed or a ridgeline he hasn't walked in northern Maine. Those who have hunted with him say he most often returns to camp without a deer but with a clear picture of hardwood growth on the surrounding slopes. Those who have camped with him tell stories of Sinclair policing up candy wrappers and tin cans to burn and bury.

Sinclair's roots in Maine's woodlands run deep and strong. He was born and raised on his grandfather's farm in the tiny town of St. Francis in northern Maine's St. john River valley. His paternal great-grandfather (also named John) originally settled the land in the 1880s after immigrating from Inverness, Scotland, and his grandfather was a "walking boss," overseeing lumbering operations the length and breadth of the St. John River.

Sinclair's British ancestry - his mother was Delia Savage, a member of one of the original English families in the valley-put him in the minority among the predominantly French-Canadian population along the St. John. He likes to say he picked up enough French to understand but not enough to be understood.

Formal education in the St. Francis farmland began in a one-room school and ended in 10th grade. Students yearning for a high-school diploma had to move away to Fort Kent or some other large town. Any ambition Sinclair had in that direction disappeared in the harsh reality of the Great Depression. His father, a potato farmer until the economic collapse destroyed the markets, had begun taking Sinclair into the woods when he was 1 1, and at 14 Sinclair hired out on a woods crew as an apprentice. Two years later, in 1936, he left school to work in the woods full time with his father so his younger six brothers and four sisters could continue their educations.

A youngster didn't simply walk into the woods and begin cutting. Lumbering was a craft, and anyone starting in the profession first served an apprenticeship. Sinclair recalls that the first year he went into the woods, he spent most of the time hauling supplies into camp with a horse and doing other chores. If there was firewood to be split for the cookie or fir boughs to be cut for bedding, Sinclair heard his name called. The days, he says, were always too short, even though they began before daylight.

His first job as a true woodsman at 16 was cutting and peeling cedar poles for sale to power companies that were expanding into rural Canada and Maine. "We made them into rafts about 20 poles wide and seven or eight long," Sinclair recalled in a 1978 interview. "They would be more than 200 feet long, and we'd build a sweep at each end to steer. We'd let it go when the water was just right and put two men on it, float it downriver. It was a lot of fun."

As much as he remembers those days with a certain affection, Sinclair figures he was born about 20 years too late to catch what he considers the heyday of logging in Maine. He calls the period from the turn of the century to 1929 the glamorous days. He still shakes his head thinking about the 1.6 billion board-feet of timber cut between 1904 and 1924 and floated downriver to mills and rail heads.

"And they did no damage whatsoever to the forest crop," he marvels. Those were the days when horses and oxen powered logging operations, and any tree less than 15 inches at breast height wasn't worth a cutter's time. It was the Depression, he believes, that changed everything. "Things became very tight in the Northeast forest industry, and the companies changed from teams to piece work, the cruelest thing that ever happened. It was the beginning of clearcutting."

During the Depression years Sinclair learned surveying from his father and an elderly neighbor. Adding a new skill fit his philosophy about employment. "I learned early," he told one interviewer, "that rather than stand around and wait for a job, you went to look for one. And from the age of 14 to this day, I have never been without a job."

In 1940, he took a position as a surveyor with the U.S. Corps of Engineers. That career was interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Sinclair joined the Navy, and his surveying skills were put to work in an aerial mapping unit.

After the war Sinclair rejoined the Corps of Engineers and found himself stationed in the Boston area. By then, he was married to his childhood sweetheart, Mary Jane Baker, and they had started a family. (David is a forester and has a business in Greenville, Maine, and Susan is a University of Southern Maine community programs director.)

The decision to move back to Maine came easily, Sinclair recalls. He was leading a survey crew, but taking home the lowest paycheck because he lacked a degree. Besides, he says in retrospect, Boston was no place for a woods runner like him.

Sinclair worked briefly for the Great Northern Paper Company and the Van Buren-Madawaska Corporation (a subsidiary of the Canadian Irving family empire) before Grover Bradford, woodlands manager for the Pingree Heirs, asked Sinclair to be his man in St. Pamphile on the Maine-Quebec border. As it turned out, the man and the company were a perfect fit, and Sinclair found "an instructor in life" in forester George "Pete" Sawyer, "the best woodsman I ever traveled with." Sawyer was a member of the Dunn family, who along with the Pingree Heirs are the principal surviving family owners of sizable tracts in Maine.

The Pingree woodland holdings in Maine date back to the 1820s and the frenzied speculation that ran rampant in the years after Maine became a state in 1820. David Pingree, a Salem, Massachusetts, businessman who had made his fortune in the shipping business, bought vast tracts of northern Maine wilderness as a hedge against what he feared was the decline of New England shipping.

Sinclair speaks passionately about the Pingree family. There have always been two types of people on the Maine lumbering scene, the speculators in it for a quick buck and the investors who stay for the long haul. The Pingrees, from David to the present day, consistently have worked with an eye toward the future health of the resource. "They didn't inherit money," says Sinclair. "They inherited land-management responsibilities. " Although profit was always part of the picture, the family's management philosophy was a perfect mirror of Sinclair's own.

His time in St. Pamphile only confirmed Sinclair's suspicion that he had found a special relationship with the Pingrees. It was no surprise when he was asked to move to Bangor five years later to prepare to take over as woodlands manager when Grover Bradford retired. The family wanted a man with a feel for the woods and a knowledge of northern Maine.

They also needed someone who could deal with the Moosetowners.

Moosetowners were the residents of the Allagash Plantation in northwestern Maine-remote, rough, ready, and a law unto themselves from the earliest days of settlement. Some of the old Moosetown stories make Dodge City and Deadwood sound positively blissful. Many Moosetowners had taken to supporting themselves with timber cut from Pingree land without Pingree permission.

Sinclair was no Wyatt Earp, but he knew the Allagash, and the Moosetowners knew him. He made the rounds, speaking quietly and diplomatically, offering help and advice and friendly warnings. When the warnings didn't work, he sent a few men off to jail for a month or so. Along the way, he turned more than one trespass cutter into a contractor for Pingree. They may have been timber thieves, but no one worked the woods better than a Moosetowner.

Besides, Sinclair allows, if he hadn't given them contracts to cut legally, most of them would have gone out and done it anyway.

As woodlands manager for the Pingree Heirs and president of Seven Islands Land Company, Sinclair became responsible for the Pingrees' 1.5 million acres (today reduced to one million acres), plus another half million acres of other owners' lands. Sinclair admits that the complexity of the Maine forest surprised even him in his early years. The New England forest contains 176 tree species, and the various climatic differences and soil patterns complicate the picture even further.

Given the complexity, it was plain commonsense, Sinclair felt, to use the selection system of cutting, allowing each site to be managed for optimum volume and quality. And the allowable cut was restricted to the amount of wood known to be growing annually. In that way, the forest would supply raw material forever. Sinclair says today that the Pingrees "have lands that are the best in the state and have had the best care."

Sinclair's new job put him in a perfect position to oppose his former employers, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, over the long-planned and long-delayed Dickey-Lincoln hydroelectric dam project proposed for northern Maine in the 1950s and 1960s. The dam would have flooded the Allagash and St. john river valleys, drowning one million acres of prime forestland, much of it owned or managed by the Pingree family or Seven Islands Land Company.

The dam project was shortsighted and unnecessary, argued Sinclair, who was on the winning side, as he was in the late 1980s in opposing Great Northern Paper's proposed "Big A" dam project on the Penobscot River-again because it would destroy prime forestland. During his Navy years he had put together aerial maps of Greenland, Baffinland, James Bay, Ungava Bay, and the upper parts of Canada, and he recognized unrivaled waterpower potential when he saw it. If the United States was so eager to develop more hydroelectric dams, he said, let it look across the border.

Sinclair, however, today gives only qualified support to Canada's mammoth Hydro-Quebec project in James Bay, because of the damage to Cree Indian lands. "You just don't run roughshod over people," he says.

Sinclair can't say enough favorable things about Maine's biomass development. "Biomass is the best damn thing that's happened," he says, listing benefits ranging from cleaning up dead or rotten trees on the forest floor to providing jobs in economically depressed rural areas. Ironically, however, Sinclair thinks trees are too valuable to burn. He sees the biomass plants as the forerunners of wood chemical plants.

"We haven't explored fully the capability of wood and chemicals," he laments. "We've seriously delayed research. In the U.S., we know damn little about what we're growing, or about the soils and the interplay of sun and water."

Sinclair left the presidency of Seven Islands Land Company in 1980 because he felt that "young people in the company needed to get going and have a place to move up. I thought I could help by moving aside." He became a member of the board and a private consultant.

Part of the legacy he left was an annual "come and visit" program he established with the Pingree Heirs, who number about 100 from around the country. Once a year, all the heirs gather to visit their lands, and each member of the new generation plants a tree that they will personally attend all their lives. It's one way that he instilled in them a sense of long-term forest husbandry.

He continued his work with the Boy Scouts, a relationship started when he was a scoutmaster in St. Francis. Through its efforts, the Boy Scouts brought its High Adventure program to Maine and set up a base at Mattagammon Lake on the north border of Baxter State Park.

Last summer, he "severed everything with Seven Islands and the Boy Scouts." At the time, he differed with national scout leaders on what the Maine program should be. "They tried to make High Adventure here like an Army camp, " Sinclair says. "It's not an approach we in Maine wanted. We want to instruct boys in living, awareness of nature, and what their responsibilities are in traveling." He feels freer now, he says, to confront the scout leadership.

He also differs with many in his own industry. "I don't believe in spoiling Maine with clearcutting and herbicides. Clearcutting goes against the grain of

Mother Nature. " The only exception, he says, is on sites where there's "no soil to hold up the trees" from wind. On herbicides, he agrees with using them on roadsides but not on clearcuts "or any area of the state that has been or will be a commercial forest. "

Sinclair thinks that "good foresters should study each and every acre before a decision is made" on how to cut and manage. Forestry," he says, "has been practiced too much after-the-fact." Under his leadership at Seven Islands, Sinclair says the foresters planned five years ahead and knew exactly what they were going to do with the ax, chainsaw, or tractor" on every acre.

He is especially critical of large corporate landowners. He singles out Great Northern Paper Company, which was Maine's largest single landowner before being taken over in 1989 by Georgia Pacific Corporation. Sinclair says that Great Northern spent too much on building roads and fancy woods camps and not enough on true forest management. And he faults commercial landowners for using crude" harvesting machinery that abuses the land. He thinks that Georgia Pacific is beginning to manage more carefully. If landowners don't learn to "bow to the forest itself," he says, they will have "a dry woodyard" in the future, or Maine wood will be too expensive to compete with wood from the South and Canada.

Though Maine has played a minor role in supplying wood to the world, he thinks "this forest farm is terribly important to the whole nation. Places in the South are having problems with monocultures and disease, and then Hurricane Hugo caused huge forest devastation down there. Maine has an opportunity to be a supplier forever. But we have to do some better planning and be very careful. We do have a lot of forest here, but it's a very delicate ecosystem."

John Sinclair should know. He's been around a couple hundred thousand miles of it.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:People; forest conservationist's attitudes
Author:Austin, Phyllis
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Loggers of the deep.
Next Article:The can't-win catalpa.

Related Articles
Environment, economics, and forestry's future.
Conservation realities in the '90s.
Suffering the enviro-doc.
Lansing Bennett, C.I.A.
The Duluth manifesto.
The great divide: 12 environmental and animal rights leaders talk about what separates them - and what can bring them together.
Clive Marsh. (Memorials).
Lionel Elmore, passionate conservationist.
Tigers' last stand: could a radical plan save the world's wild tigers from extinction? The debate roars on.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters