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Logging and the Changing Landscape
By David Van Wie

Last winter we logged our woodlot. Thirty-five acres of mixed hardwoods and conifers produced an impressive amount of sawlogs, hardwood veneer logs, pulpwood and chips. Our foresters, Tom Cushman and Mallory Bussell of Maine Custom Woodlands, did a nice job prescribing a selective harvest. The logging crew was efficient and diligent in removing the trees, despite the persistent cold and heavy snow. We still have a nice mixed age forest, but now one that is much younger and that will grow valuable trees for the next harvest in 20 years or so. Our woodlot has been transformed, but in a sustainable manner, while providing a mix of habitats for many wildlife species.


90 Years Young?

One sunny afternoon while the loggers were still working the harvest, I went out on snowshoes to examine the trees they had stacked for removal. I counted the rings on a few of the largest logs: 85 to 90 years old. Beautiful logs, but not really all that old for what I considered a mature stand of timber.

Tromping around my woodlot that afternoon got me thinking about the landscape and how it has changed in my town, and across New England. Anyone who has spent a few hours in a tree stand has probably pondered the old stone walls that run through the forest, imagining the hardy souls who moved all those rocks.

Yes, the northern New England landscape has changed over the last 50, 100 or 200 years. It is fascinating to think about how and why it has changed. And to wonder what it will look like in another 50, 100 or 200 years, especially with the changes in climate we are experiencing.

A 90 year old tree harvested in my woodlot started as a sapling when my dad was a little boy. Back then, most of my woodlot was a farmer’s field, maybe pastureland, next to the old Town Farm (the poor farm) that gives our road its name. Some of the fields nearby are still producing hay, but the surrounding forests have filled in the pastures marked by the old stone walls that run through the forest.


Forests Change Over Time

“Forensic ecologists” use many sources of information to reconstruct the history of the landscapes in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The historical patterns have shaped the landscape, and the wildlife populations that live therein, in many interesting ways. I found some helpful historical information on the Maine Forest Service website, and in a 2013 article in Northern Woodlands magazine ("Reconstructing the Past: Maine Forests Then and Now," by Andrew Barton, Alan White and Charles Cogbill).

In the 1700s, forests covered virtually all of the upland portions of Maine. By the mid 1800s, farming and wood-cutting had reduced forest cover to 20% or less of the land area in the more heavily farmed towns, especially in the southern half of the state. Forests to the north remained largely intact, although steady harvesting up there removed much of the old growth bit by bit over the years.

The decline in farming after the Civil War, due to westward migration and the rise of industrial cities, allowed the forests to take over once again until the “second growth” forest rebounded to cover over 90% of the state today. But according to Barton et al., about 60% of the trees in our forests today are under 75 years old, and almost none are over 150 years old. In pre-settlement times, 30% of the trees in Maine were over 300 years old!


New Hampshire's Experience

In the White Mountains, the change in the landscape was even more dramatic. By the late 1800s, most of what we now call the White Mountain National Forest was stripped of trees, due to heavy cutting, fires, and agriculture, particularly sheep farming. The unfortunate result of the denuded landscape was an increase in flooding, erosion and siltation in the rivers and streams. Towns and businesses downstream complained that the flooding resulted in property damage, while lower flows in summer disrupted water supplies and commerce as a direct results of destructive land use practices in the headwaters.

In 1911, Congressman John Wingate Weeks, a Republican born in Lancaster, New Hampshire, championed passage of the Weeks Act, that allowed the federal government to purchase land to protect the headwaters of rivers, thereby creating several National Forests east of the Mississippi. After years of debate and compromise, the persuasive justification for this landmark piece of legislation was to protect water quality and restore stream flows in the nation’s navigable waters through better forest management.

By 1918, the White Mountain National Forest was born. Over the years, thousands of acres were purchased, increasing to over 750,000 acres today. As the trees and forests grew back, erosion and siltation were halted, and diverse habitat developed for fish and wildlife. The forests eventually provided raw materials to drive a boom in the paper and lumber industries that have provided jobs to thousands.

Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the US Forest Service, advocated early principles of environmental stewardship. His philosophy is embodied in his statement that the National Forests should be managed for ". . .the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run." The WMNF is still managed under that general philosophy.

Today, the towering trees would leave many to believe that the White Mountain National Forest, and similar areas in Maine, were always mature forests. Look carefully, and you can still see signs of the past land uses: old roads and railroad beds, remnants of logging dams, cellar holes, rock walls, and giant ancient stumps.


Our Back Forty

Those big trees in my woodlot in southern Maine were about the same age as the White Mountain National Forest itself. The changes in the landscape out my back door have occurred across northern New England. Our woodlot harvest last winter has started the cycle anew, but this time using a mixed age selective cut with plenty of mature trees remaining, and with open skid trails that now allow sunlight, new growth and low brush for a variety of faunal species.

The hunters who put up their tree stands on my property this fall looked out over a different landscape than they did just a couple years ago. It will continue to change in the decades to come. And hopefully, my kids will be able to make another productive harvest of timber in 20 and 40 and 60 years from now.

Reprinted from The Maine Sportsman, The Sporting Environment, February 2016

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