David Degruttola manages the Leavitt Plantation
The woods on the steep ledgy south slope of Cedar Mountain in Parsonsfield are not prime timberland. But the scattered stumps we saw were evidence that someone had done some logging a few decades ago. "Looks like they were chasing pine," said David Degruttola, eyeing one rotted stump. As we climbed, the woods became more open and the leaf litter showed new shoots of grass poking out. What we had come to visit was a rare plant community called an "Ironwood-Oak-Ash Woodland," one of perhaps 20 to 100 such sites in the state, according to the Maine Natural Areas Program. It was not obvious to me what makes this place special. But then Degruttola started pointing things out: The canopy overhead protects against the prying eyes of hawks. The open under-story frustrates coyotes and foxes trying to sneak up undetected. And there are plenty nuts and bugs to gorge on. This was turkey heaven. On this morning, we did not see any turkeys and Degruttola, speculated that some hens might already be nesting. We were in the 8,700-acre Leavitt Plantation, the largest tract of continguous woods in York County. It's been a showcase for good forestry going back decades, beginning with its ownership by SD Warren. Since 2005, it has been owned by the Heartland Forestland Fund V of Chapel Hill, NC.
It is an article of faith among some people that you cannot make money growing trees these days. HFF's ownership of the Leavitt Plantation is proof of just the opposite. And they're making money by practicing very conservative forestry. Its management of the "Ironwood-Oak-Ash Woodland" is instructive. This patch of woods gets the hands-off treatment. No logging ever. It's just common sense, says Degruttola, noting the thin soils on top of sloping ledges. "If you harvest here, what are you doing to the soil?," he asks. "Are you going to benefit the forest or harm the forest?" Degrutolla doesn't answer but it's clear that he believes the revenue generated by logging today is outweighed by the long term ecological harm.
There are 30 or more rare, threatened or endangered species in the Leavitt Plantation. I asked Degruttola if his bosses view a protected area as an unavoidable cost of landownership or an inherent benefit. "They see it as added value," he said. "They see it not as it's costing them acres [of harvestable timber], but how it all fits into the landscape. There's only a couple of acres [of Ironwood-Oak-Ash Woodland] here, it's not that big. But the fact that it’s here is what’s important. It's an important part of the landscape, how it's all intertwined." Leaving it alone is the prescription called for by the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent forestry performance auditing organization that sets the highest bar for forestry. HFF's FSC certification is part of its calling card with investors, says Degruttola. "They take certification very, very seriously," he says. Turkeys give thanks for that.
Ralph Ridley has a lot to smile about
Ten of us gathered on a chilly grey afternoon to walk through the Shapleigh Town Forest, the best one around. I say best because it is the biggest, most productive, most diversely used and most appreciated town-owned woods in the area.
Our hosts were Ralph Ridley, chairman of the Town Forest Committee, Anna Dixon, a member of the Shapleigh Conservation Committee and Bill Hutchins, a driving force and now an emeritus member of the Town Forest Committee. Folks from Acton and Lebanon had come to learn what they could to apply to their own town forests.
Shapleigh does it right. Not only have these folks convinced their town of the benefits of growing trees, but in return the town has entrusted its citizen foresters with authority. The woods are protected by a conservation easement so they will never be developed, no matter who is in office in the future. Proceeds from timber sales get plowed right back into improving the woods. The Town Forest has been expanded by more than four fold, from 140 acres to more than 525 acres. Today, the woods are growing timber at the rate of $28,000 per year. That's forester Town Forester Eric Grove's best estimate, contained in the 2006 Town Forest Management Plan
But we weren't there to talk money. We were there to have a look around, to admire, to learn. One thing I learned is that success came slowly. Back in the 1950s, it took five years to even get the creation of a town forest before voters, said Bill. In those days, this area was the hinterlands. Dirt roads were common and farms were far apart. Anna laughs remembering the common reaction to anyone who wanted to live in the area: "'Who the heck wants to live in the woods?' Well, a few of us do. We love it. It's just great."
Over the years, the Town Forest has been pruned and thinned and harvested, always under the supervision of a forester. There were occasional attempts to divert timber sale income, though none were successful. The beautiful stands of today took 75 years or more to mature. "These trees don't grow overnight, you know," said Ralph.
As we walked, we saw a recently thinned stand of pine, a lightning-struck tree, the old town farm foundation, and the hiking trails. You must be proud of what you have here, I suggested to Bill.
"Oh, sure, everybody in town is," he said.
"My aim in life is to show people the history here"
-- Susan Moulton of Hiram, sixth generation
Bos Savage of Limington and the "King's Pine"
I don't know which is more amazing, the age of the tree or that the same family has kept it company for more than two centuries.
On Susan Moulton's property in Hiram stands a tree that was already famously old 75 years ago. "A magnificent white pine near Hiram, Oxford County, dates back to the Royal Charter of 1690 ..." So begins an entry in Famous Trees, the US Department of Agriculture's Miscellaneous Publication No. 295
published in June 1938. The tree has been attracting admirers ever since. It was written up in Down East magazine in 1980. It's presence also helped make a case for establishing Route 113 as a National Scenic Byway.
I visited the tree one fine spring morning with my friend Bos Savage, executive director of Francis Small Heritage Trust. Bos had called ahead, but arriving at the end of a long driveway, we were greeted by a women with a look that said "who the hell are you?"
Fortunately, the look didn't last long. Owner Susan Moulton was a delightful host. After showing us around her house and yard, she pointed us in the direction of our quarry. From a distance, the tree doesn't look all that impressive, hiding as it does behind three other pines on the edge of a field. (See top photo.)
"I can see from here, a little bit more [of the treetop] broke off last winter," said Susan, scanning the treeline.
It turns out, the tree's top was torn off in a storm years ago, exposing a jagged crown. Up close, the tree had a battled-scarred grandeur about it. Its base was in a ravine many yards below its "taller" neighbors. It was ramrod straight with no taper for about 40 feet. Upper limbs were wickedly crooked and some almost as thick as the trunk. The trunk appeared to be a good foot thick where the top broke off - level with the tops of other trees.
Someone from the University of Maine measured the tree in 1968 at 120 feet tall - before the top blew off, according to Jack Wadsworth, a local forester and cousin, who has managed the woods from time to time. At the time, the tree contained 4,000 board feet of lumber.
There is some debate, I discovered, about the tree's status as a "King's Pine." The name comes from the colonial era when trees branded with the broad arrow blaze - three slashes of an ax - were claimed as masts for the Royal Navy. Only the best trees - two feet or thicker - were deemed worthy. If Susan Moulton's tree was ever blazed, there is no evidence of it today. Susan prefers not to air her opinion. "It's old enough to be a King's Pine," she said.
The debate about the tree's age may or may not be settled soon. Bob Seymour, a forestry professor at University of Maine at Orono, is planning to visit the tree soon to take a core sample. "It's on my bucket list," said Seymour in a telephone interview. Seymour hopes his 28 inch increment borer tool is long enough to reach the middle of the tree. Even if it does, it may not be definitive if the center of the tree is rotted. Wadsworth suspects it is.
Perhaps more remarkable than the tree is the continuity of family ownership of these woods going back two centuries. In 1790, Peleg Wadsworth, a Revolutionary War general, bought 7,800 acres along the Saco River from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "He paid 12 cents an acre," said Susan, who is still owner of about 500 of those acres. Susan is great, great, great, great grandaughter of Peleg. That makes six generations in the same spot. And Susan's daughter lives in the house with her, so that makes seven generations. Their house, Wadsworth Hall, dating from 1800 is on the National Register of Historic Places. One of its famous summer occupants was the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, grandson of Peleg.
Susan is happy to share her tree with visitors, as long as they give her some notice. "You've got to call ahead," she said. She's tired of people "rolling in at odd hours wanting to see house, I am not going to deal with that." So, call ahead. She'll probably accomodate you. "My aim in life is to show people the history here," she says.
Once that tree is properly dated, someone ought to date families with the longest histories in the same place. The Wadsworth-Moulton clan might have bragging rights in that department.
Shapleigh Town Forest
Kudos to the towns taking stock of their woodlots.
- The Lebanon Selectboard and a recently revived conservation committee are scheduled to meet Thursday April 25 to discuss the committee's new responsibilities, one of which is likely to be assessing the town's 600+ acres of woods.
- Members of the Acton Town Forestry Committee and Acton Conservation Committee plan to survey residents and get new direction at the Annual Town Meeting in June.
- Folks in Alfred and Newfield are exploring how town-owned woods can be more of an asset to the community.
Each town's situation is different. But there are some denominators. Fortunately, there is a role model nearby. Shapleigh has decades of experience managing town-owned woods and folks are willing to share their knowledge. The Shapleigh Town Forest Committee and Shapleigh Conservation Committee have agreed to host a woods "walk and talk" at their Town Forest 5:30 Thursday May 2. Meet along Cedar Drive, which is a loop road off Town Farm Road. Members of the Conservation Committee plan to talk about public uses of the Town Forest, while members of the Town Forest Committee will show us a recent thinning cut and talk about their organizational structure. We'll record the event on video and share it on public access cable TV
Maine's largest black walnut tree in Limerick
If you’ve got a big tree on your property, the York County Soil and Water Conservation District wants to hear from you.
The District is sponsoring a Big Trees of York County, Maine contest featuring native tree species. Trees receive a score based on three measurements: circumference at four feet, total height and crown spread. The goal is to identify the biggest trees for each of the species listed. The county champion may be nominated for state or national champion. Official measurements will be taken by trained staff and foresters that are volunteering their time to be part of this contest. To get a nomination form Click Here
“People really seem to enjoy this,” said Ken Canfield, District Forester for the Maine Forest Service, who has been organizing the contest along with Melissa Brandt at the Conservation District office. A similar contest in Oxford County last fall led to the discovery of the tallest American chestnut east of the Mississippi and boosted local awareness.
Before you start boasting about your tree, you might want to check out the competition. Twenty two of the 159 state champion trees in Maine are growing in York County, according to the 2009-2010 Maine Register of Big Trees. The largest known black walnut tree, for example, is growing at a bend in Cramm Road in Limerick. It was last measured at 100 feet tall and 158 inches around. That was 14 years ago.
Those trees will have the opportunity to be remeasured this year.
Some people take great pride in their big trees. Others enjoy retelling the stories of their trees. That’s certainly the case with Lloyd Knight, owner of the big walnut tree in Limerick. The tree germinated from one of the walnuts his great uncle, a Civil War soldier, sent home from Virginia, he said.
“My great grandmother planted them around the farm, including the big tree at the corner of the house,” explained Knight, now in his 90s and living in Cape Elisabeth. Knight grew up in Sanford and later acted in Broadway musicals. Older folks might remember him as “Cap’n Lloyd,” star of the 1960s childrens show on the old WGAN- TV.
The tree brings back memories of shooting red squirrels, swinging on the swing that hung from one of its limbs, and cracking walnuts for cookies and fudge. “You need a hammer and a solid base,” he said. Nowadays, his wife worries about a limb falling on the house. An iron bar braces the limbs together. “I always, force of habit, look up in the top,” he said.
I asked him if he’s proud of his tree. It kind of stumped him. “Gorry, I wish I had a sentence to sum it all up,” he said. “Having grown up with it, it’s just always been there.”
Nominations are being accepted from May 1 to Sept. 1. For a nomination form contact Melissa Brandt at 324-0888 X 214 or download the application from our website www.yorkswcd.org.
Andy Shultz, left, and Kevin Doran, right, of the Maine Forest Service.
Nal Tero of Springvale makes a point
It was a revelation to some folks who attended a meeting in Newfield last month to learn how few landowners in Maine identify with an organization. Of the 88,000 small woodland owners in Maine, only 3,000 of them are members of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine. This is not a knock on SWOAM, which is a terrific organization whose influence is far greater than the numbers suggest. It just shows that woodland owners are not joiners. It’s a Maine thing.
Still, woodland owners want to learn from each other. That was my takeaway from the first meeting of a new kind of landowner group, called Woods Neighbor Network. More than 30 people gathered in the only heated building at Willowbrook on the evening of March 20. We shared soup, sandwiches and cider. Andy Shultz and Kevin Doran of the Maine Forest Service facilitated the discussion, which was wide ranging.
What kinds of information and skills the group decides to share is still being explored. Folks made it clear they don’t feel a need to attend a retreat or get formal training. A skill-sharing questionnaire is being circulated among participants.
While we collect feedback, allow me to pontificate for a moment on what I see as the value of a network. Though we often take it for granted, the woods are why we live in western York County. We like the elbow room. We like the views. We like local maple syrup, Christmas trees and pine boards. We like wood heat. We like clear brooks and lakes. We like to hunt and fish and hike and mountain bike and canoe and snowmobile. Landowners are the ones who make it all happen. While some large conservation areas exist, most of the land is owned privately. Landowners make possible not just our quality of life, but also jobs. I got an analyst at the Maine Department of Labor to count all the jobs directly tied to the woods economy in the ten-town Forest Works region. It comes to 370. This is a significant economic impact. But consider all the challenges landowners face – taxes, trespassers, weak markets and the temptation of selling to a developer. It makes me wonder how the working forest exists at all.
If we want to keep the woods intact, we need to improve the economics of owning woods. That’s one benefit of a network. The opportunities of the future may only be available to those who network. The pending availability of federal Forest Legacy funding in western York County will open new opportunities to sell development rights. But these funds are almost certainly not going to someone who owns 30 acres or even 300 acres. To be competitive, interested small landowners are well advised to team up with other small landowners and aggregate their acreage into a larger block of unbroken woods. How large is difficult to say because it depends on resource value, strategic location, and economic value. Probably thousands of acres. Selling carbon credits is another potential revenue source of the future and Maine is well positioned with 90 percent of the state forested. But again, this is an opportunity for small woodland owners only if they aggregate on massive scale.
There is value in a network even if these opportunities are never pursued. The exchange of ideas will surely improve individual forest stewardship. It will also create something bigger. It will open lines of communication among disparate groups that depend on the woods. It will create a sense of community across a wide geography. It will strengthen the identity of the region. It will be something new for Maine. And to think it started at Willowbrook with soup, sandwiches and cider. Let the networking begin.
Great Brook Lumber in Lebanon is back in business. Sorta. Owner Chris Sewell is sawing timbers for the first time in four years.
“I can work as little as I want, or as much as I want,” he said. “Interest rates are low. Rich people are going to build houses …” The look on his face said “you do the math.”
Sewell supplies beams to timber-frame home builders. He produces beams up to 40 feet long, but also produces lumber in shorter dimensions than standard mills. Most of the beams end up in high-end houses and barns.
“It’s a small niche. We concentrate on just doing timbers,” he said.
Sewell, now in his early 50s, has been in business since the 1970s. He inherited a small defunct mill and gradually expanded it by acquiring low-maintenance, common equipment, some of it older than him. He’s employed as many as 30 people, but has found the greatest efficientcies with just a handful of employees. The mill’s de-barker, two saws and planer are so reliable that it was a cinch to restart after a four-year hiatus.
“I pushed a button, that’s all,” he said.
Looking ahead, Sewell said he’s unsure of the strength of the timber-frame housing market, but it’s clear, he's outlasted his competitors. “All of our competition is gone. They’ve gotten old or retired. For mills producing any real quantity, I don’t believe there’s anyone around. Well, there’s a mill in New York.”
The mill makes it possible for the Sewell family to retain ownership of extensive tracts of timberland in Lebanon and Berwick. “The sawmill is the only way to keep owning thousands of acres of timberland,” he said. “But somebody has to run it.”
Some day, Sewell said he expects to pass the business on to the next generation. He has a son and several nephews.
How do you make a living off a 30-acre patch of woods and field in Lebanon, Maine? If you’re Steve Collins, you become a one-man, living history museum. Collins' unique mix of homesteading skills, bygone machines and old-fashioned salesmanship draws visitors to Belgian Meadows Farm every month of the year.
“Everything I do, I can do with one person,” said Collins, a former framing contractor. This time of year, it means maple sugaring, sawing logs, and giving sleigh rides. Other times of year, it means growing pumpkins, haying, giving wagon rides and hosting weddings and birthday parties. All times of year, it means raising beef and pigs. “I like doing it all. I earn enough money to survive here.”
Collins’ latest enthusiasm is an 1878 shingle mill, a Rube-Goldberg contraption that saws and planes firewood-sized logs into shakes. He acquired the machine from an owner in Skowhegan.
“I’m just learning how to use it,” he said. “It doesn’t come with an owners’ manual … I have always, always wanted one. I don’t know why. As you can see I like playing with wood.”
Collins envisions growing a side business milling pine shakes, similar to his side business milling wide boards, which he started in order to side his own buildings and continues to do for income.
“Once I get doing it, and people start seeing it … I can see a small market [in pine shakes],” he said.
Collins actively manages his woodlot. He’s enrolled his property in the Tree Growth Tax Law program and has taken advantage of landowner cost share programs available through the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service. He’s even won a conservation award for his efforts.
Collins would like to keep his farm intact into future, although neither of his two kids is interested in taking over.
“What I’d really like to do is sell development rights to the farm so no one can ever do anything else but farm here,” he said. He is trying to make his property a more attractive conservation acquisition by documenting visitors (300 during January and February.) The size of his property isn’t as important as how many people visit his farm to connect with nature, he said.
“Before I die this is going to be set up so no matter who owns it, it will be like it is. There will not ever be houses on property, guaranteed.”
photo by Eli Sagor
I think I see the future of logging on small woodlots in southern Maine. Take a look the photo at left. It's called a "cut to length harvester." Notice the tight quarters it's operating in? Notice the tiny trees it's cutting? These machines may find some fans in southern Maine, where aesthetics and damage from big machines are big concerns.
Until recently, these harvesters were confined to northern Maine, where the woods are expansive enough to recover the high capital costs of new equipment. But used equipment is starting to show up in central and southern Maine where it is proving its worth on small woodlots.
I caught up by phone with one “cut to length” operator, Scott Kinney of Belgrade. He says his equipment is much gentler on the environment than other systems because the wood is carried out of the woods rather than dragged.
“I call it aesthetic logging,” said Kinney. “It’s great for the landowner.” The processor’s arm reaches in and selectively thins small trees without damaging neighboring big trees. The trees are limbed and cut to length at the stump then transported to the road by a second vehicle, a forwarder, which carries the logs on a bunk. The vehicles’ soft tires and the standard practice of laying down tree boughs on tote roads reduces soil compaction. Kinney says he can work on wetter soils than other equipment, a big advantage in the Belgrade area.
“We do a lot of work around the lakes. There’s a lot of watersheds here. Everywhere you go, there’s a brook or a creek. Putting bridge mats down is better than skidding [trees] through,” he says.
Kinney bought his equipment new in 1998 and for many years operated it on large tracts in northern Maine, but now he operates it closer to home on woodlots as small as five to seven acres. “Fortunately, due to our equipment, we’re able to work on smaller pieces,” he says. He said it's possible to acquire a used system - cut to length harvester and forwarder - for $300,000.
Community forests are one of those secrets hiding in plain sight.
All ten towns in the Forest Works! region – with the exception of Cornish – own significant tracts of woods. For a listing of acreage, check the Forest Works! website. It’s fair to say these lands are vastly underappreciated. Few people know where these woods are and fewer still have visited them. And yet in their obscurity, they still provide tremendous benefits – wildlife habitat, clean water protection and timber that grows in value each year.
So, it was heartening to see so many people in one place talking about town forests. They were gathered at Shapleigh Town Hall on a cold mid-January night to share experiences and listen to a talk by Julie Renaud Evans, a forester for Northern Forest Center in Concord, N.H. I spotted folks from Alfred, Shapleigh, Acton, Newfield, Lebanon and Wells.
Julie works all over northern New England to promote community forests. She gave a pep talk of sorts.
It was music to the ears of Mike Roux and Ralph Ridley, trustees of Shapleigh's Town Forest, who have done an exemplary job over the years. They have nurtured the woods, reinvesting timber-sale proceeds in new acreage, expanding the size of the town forest by four times over. It is now more than 500 acres.
Julie’s message seemed to fall on receptive ears. Afterward, folks in Lebanon talked about putting together a committee. Folks in Newfield talked about about a site walk of a town-owned bird sanctuary. Folks in Shapleigh talked about better signage. Folks in Acton talked about reviving a Town Forest Committee that hasn’t met in a few years.
“Quite honestly, we don’t think most people in Acton even know the town forest exists,” said Bill Maloney, a member of Acton’s Town Forest Committee. Maloney said he personally would like to see Acton’s 260 acres of wood “somewhat better managed .”
“Don’t just whack them every 20 years,” he said.
Evans said she was pleased by the response. “The Shapleigh stories were great. It was wonderful to hear the pride and their willingness to share their experiences… Other folks were really thoughtful, listening, thinking about their own lands and ‘how can we get there?’”
Evans said people often come away from her talks inspired by realizing “how many other people are doing [similar things] at their level.”