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Tree farming down East.

Jon Laitin, a freelance writer, photographer, and editor, presently lives in Thorndike, Maine. Independent, unrepentant, and as unorthodox as a broad "a," these landowners are both resource stewards and flinty pragmatists.

They have been called 'the best damn land stewards" in the state of Maine. Their irreverence for textbook forestry practices is legendary. Unquestioned is their dedication to silviculture. But when independent Maine tree farmers are viewed side by side, they appear to have as much in common as a stand of mixed timber.

Numbering about 1,800, this group with dairy and potato farmers, are the last line of defense against land development in the state. In their ranks are the old-timers who were selectively cutting long before Maine started a tree farm program in 1952. Then there are the weekend warriors, hobbyists who would rather be wielding a chainsaw than a whittling knife. And the out-of-state absentee landowners who pay others to do the work in exchange for the green-and-white diamond Tree Farm sign.

For the vast majority of Maine tree farmers, careful woodlot management only supplements their incomes. Most of them-1,648, in fact- own less than 500 acres. A few have turned the harvesting and sale of freshly cut wood products from an avocation to a family business. And the traditional outdoor-oriented iconoclasts, who cut a little wood for the sawmill as just one in a multitude of money-making ventures, continue to prune, cut, and harvest like their forefathers.

"We would like to see au of Maine's woodland as tree farms someday if we had the manpower to service them," says Bob Umberger, recently retired State Taxation Forester, and a member of the State Tree Farm Committee. Maine's tree farm program, involving woodlot inspections every five years, helps keep shopping centers from the middle of the state's forests, he points out.

Though members of the state tree farm organization (a branch of the American Forest Council) would cringe at the thought of paving Maine's wooded acreage, they are not preservationists. Certified Tree Farmers must manage their woodlot for the sale of forest products, hauling their own timber with old farm tractors or contracting with skidder operators. They live by the adage that if trees are not cut, something else is going to claim them.

But how much is cut, where, and when are often matters more of style than of scientific practice. Consulting Forester David Rock of Troy, who is sympathetic to the ways of the local woodsmen who were working in the forest when he was still in grade school, is nonetheless adamant that professional loggers are needed to keep a stand in tip-top condition. To make a cut economically worthwhile, he says, at least eight cords per acre of salable wood must be harvested.

Not all tree farmers agree. Take Ray Wing, the 69-year-old woodsman from Plymouth, voted Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year for the New England region in 1972, who ran culls through his sawmill and left the good straight white pine for special occasions. When the professional foresters suggested that trees within his stands were growing too close together, Wing would quip that he'd rather see 10 trees putting on a little wood than two growing at a faster rate.

Too much thinning results in blowdowns and the growth of undesirable species, says the man who remembers when saw teeth cost five cents and cut lumber sold for $65 per 1,000 feet. Wing, who at one time selectively cut and pruned 300 acres, chose diversification rather than depending on his woodlot for income.

When he first realized the economic potential of his forest land in the 1940s, he built a sawmill. When he needed more money, he built houses rather than wipe out most of his valuable timber. In 1958 he became a Certified Tree Farmer. "By taking care of the forest there is more money in your pocket than by investing in Cds," he says.

Although Wing was convinced to spray some of his woodland with herbicides and has thinned some stands according to the recommendations of consulting foresters, he is critical of timber management education today. "They teach forestry from the book too much. Students must get out in the field to see what is happening,' he insists.

Howard E. Glidden, a Certified Maine Tree Farmer since 1979, instinctively manages a 100acre woodlot of mostly old-growth with a little help from a Tree Farm Committee member. He has a few favorite trees he will not harvest, preferring to leave them as seed trees, and he refuses to fell mature hemlock. "It's hard for me to see good sawlogs go for pulpwood. But that's all you can sell hemlock for now," he explains.

Once, he did take advantage of a government subsidy program, allowing five acres of pine to be marked and cut. And when a hurricane turned the remaining stand into a game of pick-up-sticks, Glidden was philosophical about it all. The pine forest may have been severely damaged in any case, he says.

In a recent fall, for the first time, Glidden allowed a skidder on his property. He needed money to pay for his daughter's education. "The logger and I walked through the woodlot," Glidden told me. "I pointed out the trees to cut. We harvested 25,000 board-feet of oak and 25,000 of white pine. Some of the growth rings went back to 1850. The old trees gave us as much as 1,500 board-feet each. "

Like many other small-time tree farmers, Glidden must work another job to earn a living. The trees he sells for sawlogs, pulpwood, and firewood provide him and his family with some extra income. He estimates that it would take at least 1,000 acres, much of it mature growth, to keep him full time in the forest.

That's what Wallace Fengler of Scarborough figured. But unlike Glidden and Wing, Fengler had the money to buy up woodlots when the pickings were good. He has been a Certified Tree Farmer since 1970.

After earning a B.S. degree in animal husbandry at Michigan State, Glidden became a food inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, assigned to southern Maine. "My wife didn't want me to be a farmer," he said. "But I wanted to grow something." So he contacted the Maine Forest Service and soon learned that he had white pine and red oak on his 34 acres in need of management. On weekends he pruned and cut.

When a 124-acre managed woodlot up the road became available at a reasonable rate, Fengler bought it, marked the trees for selective cutting, and brought in a skidder.

Next he bought a 95-acre hardwood lot in Sumner, 200 acres in Fayette, 60 acres in Mechanic Falls, and several more parcels in Scarborough. When a consulting forester tipped him off about an outstanding 274-acre stand in Parsonsfield, he checked it out. Attracted to the fine timber and scenic view, Fengler agreed to pay the high asking price. "The day I signed the deed, the logger started logging. I needed the money to pay the mortgage," he says.

Sometimes cutting the trees himself and delivering the four-foot logs in his pickup to the sawmill, sometimes hiring professional loggers to selectively cut his mature stands, Fengler used the money he earned to improve his woodlots or to buy more property. He reports that in four years out of 10 he earned a profit from his sideline. His goal, to own 1,000 acres, harvesting 100 every year, has in part been reached.

In 1987 Fengler was voted Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year for the New England region. He credits Maine's tree-growth tax law, allowing land to be valued at its current use, and the support of his family for his success. When land prices in southern Maine began to skyrocket, Fengler's woodlots would have increased in value from $160 to $5,000 per acre if taxed as developable land.

Though Fengler is the first to admit that the state foresters and consulting foresters are the experts, he doesn't hesitate to preserve a favorite sugar maple or draw the line at the use of herbicides. Cull trees and hardwoods are now sold, put through a chipper, and burned in biomass boilers, he explains. "I will not spend the money on herbicides in order to make white pine ready for harvest five years earlier," he insists.

The sprouts from the stumps of cut trees, providing food for deer, are another benefit of chemical-free woodland management. "I manage the land for multiple use," Fengler points out. "My land isn't posted. I'm providing green space for hunters.

Not all tree farmers have the luxury of a government job to fall back on. When a Down East dairy farmer from Perry decided there was no future in the milk-production business, he turned full attention to his 700-acre woodlot. James Pottle was no newcomer to forest management. He had helped his father cull and selectively cut timber in the days of horses and bucksaws.

In the early 1950s Pottle contacted the state forest service to help him develop a management plan. Then when the spruce budworm hit he was forced to clearcut, salvaging what he could. Spraying insecticides was out of the question since the source of Eastport's water ran through his property.

Today, Pottle has a cooperative agreement with Georgia Pacific as part of its landowner assistance program. The company has first refusal of any of his timber if it can offer the best price. It buys spruce and fir over 5 1/2 inches in diameter for stud logs. Poor-quality trees, in addition to poplar and tamarack, are used to manufacture waferboard. His prime white-pine logs are usually sold to the small local mills.

Pottle was named Outstanding Tree Farmer in Maine in 1974. He earns additional income by selling the tops of balsam fir to a wreath maker and cedar logs to weir fishermen who use the wood for stakes and poles. He also planted Christmas trees, the first crop harvested in December 1987.

"It's a great life, but it's hard work, admits the man who grew up in the backbreaking dairy business. "You have to love the forest. You realize that you don't own the land; the land owns you."

For Martin Morse of Wells, there was never any question that someday he would set his stakes in the lumber business. His family has been cutting, milling, and selling wood for three generations. His great grandfather sawed his timber on a portable steam mill.

The reason Morse became a Certified Tree Farmer was to be part of a group promoting ideas he believed in -growing timber, providing wildlife cover, and protecting clean water-concepts that were not, in his opinion, incompatible. "With prudent timber harvesting and management, you can have your cake and eat it too," he argues.

After earning a B.S. degree in business management from New England University, Morse purchased his first four-acre woodlot. Over the years he continued to purchase good timber land, which today totals 700 acres. He harvests his own sawlogs together with his father and mills them on equipment purchased in the 1930s.

Morse's attitude about professional advice is this: "Listen to what foresters say, but before you do anything, make sure you are comfortable with that advice.He was chosen Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year for the New England region in 1985.

The fact that the independent Maine spirit lives in the tree farm program is no surprise to Charles Agnew, state chairman of the Tree Farm Committee. "The woodland owners have their own objectives. There are 1,000 different ways to skin a cat. The bottom line is that good silviculture results," he says.

Richard Miles, cooperative forester for Georgia Pacific and eastern region chairman of the Maine Tree Farm Committee, reports that the management techniques of the independent woodsmen are sometimes excellent" even when they stray from modern forestry practices. His role, he says, is to gently point out the errors in their thinking when necessary.

So does committee member Umberger. "We find that people who have done a good job for 20 or 30 years get very conservative in their old age. They don't cut as much. We have a hard time convincing them to cut more. They save the wood like an insurance policy. We can put up with their individuality as long as their woodlot isn't going backward," he says.

And who could argue with tree farmer Wing, who views his mission as a call from a higher authority? "The Lord put these trees here," he says, raising his arms as if preaching from a forest pulpit. "Now it's up to us to make them grow properly. " AF
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Title Annotation:private forests
Author:Laitin, Jon
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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