ASHLAND — Even with a satellite link from the North Woods to J.D. Irving Ltd.’s Saint John, New Brunswick, headquarters, company officials know there is no substitute for having boots on the ground.
“Mr. [James D.] Irving is a very hands-on type of manager,” said Irving Chief Forester Blake Brunsdon. “He’s on the ground [in Maine] at least once a month.”
But when Irving can’t get away, it falls to the company’s Regional Forester Ked Coffin and his staff of about 30 to manage the company’s 1.2 million acres of timberland and oversee the company’s harvesting and forest stewardship practices.
Coffin and his crew know every corner of the Irving woods and can cite the history, management plan and future outlook for every plot.
“This used to all be [Great Northern Paper Co.] land,” Coffin said, pointing to a stand of trees during a recent tour of Irving holdings near Ashland. “We bought it in 1999, brought in [a contractor] and put him to work thinning things out and opening it up.”
The acreage had been clear-cut by GNP between 1985 and 1989, after the softwood stand had been damaged by a spruce budworm infestation, Coffin said. If left to follow natural succession, he added, the stand would regrow at a rate of a quarter- to half-acre each year.
With management, however, which included the pre-commercial thinning, the stand was recovering at a rate closer to one-and-a-half to two acres a year.
“Twenty-five to 35 years after that pre-commercial thinning, it [should be] ready for another commercial thinning or a clear-cut harvest,” Coffin said. “For this stand, that’s [only] 10-20 years from now.”
Until last year, Coffin said he and other Irving foresters were restricted by the state of Maine’s Forest Practices Act, or FPA, in managing the company’s holdings.
In 2012, J.D. Irving Ltd. enrolled its lands in a little-known or used program called Outcomes Based Forestry, or OBF, which exempted its timber from clear-cutting regulations.
For its part, according to James D. Irving, co-chair of J.D. Irving Ltd., his company and its foresters are now actually held to a higher standard of woodland management with greater, outside third-party scrutiny on non-clearcut harvesting, preserving forest biology and economic support, among others.
Coffin and Brunsdon say OBF now allows them to use a more practical approach to timber management.
“Having to operate under the FPA put us under prescriptive regulations that had no science behind the rules,” Coffin said. “[OBF] has allowed us to do what is best for a specific piece of ground [and] I can sleep at night knowing I am doing what is best for the forest.”
Critics argue that the original intent of the OBF law — passed in 2001 — was not meant to include large tracts of land, such as those owned by Irving.
“The lawmakers, and those proposing Outcomes Based Forestry, described small-scale projects that would be an opportunity to experiment with different approaches to timber harvesting that would be outside the Forest Practices Act,” said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “At no point did anybody envision — and nobody suggested — that the scale of these experiments would be in the million-acres-plus size, which is a huge amount of land to be experimenting on and to be relieved from clear-cutting regulations in the Forest Practices Act.”
Irving says OBF will allow his company to manage its Maine timber more cost effectively and efficiently.
For example, Irving said because his foresters can now develop one-time harvesting plans on entire blocks without the need to return for additional cuts, his contractors’ earnings increased by 21 percent, while his company’s road construction and maintenance costs decreased by $825,000.
Now, said Coffin, the Irving forester, the company can devote resources to replanting trees and tending young stands — an expense that now tops $3 million annually.
“Seventy-five percent of our best timber acres are natural regeneration of hardwood,” Coffin said. “In those stands you’ll see young yellow birch, sugar maples and some softwoods that will sort themselves out over time [and] the outcome is a healthy, productive forest.”
And a healthy, productive forest is what the company needs to feed its mills, such as the new facility restarting next year in Ashland. Using unique technology, the mill will process 650 feet of timber every minute, or four boards a second, according to mill manager Toby Pineo.
Crews are dismantling an old Irving mill at the site, which had closed in 2008, in preparation for installation of the new equipment. When running, the mill will produce 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s destined for home improvement giant Home Depot.
“This will be Maine wood sawed in a Maine facility and shipped on Maine rail to Boston and beyond,” Pineo said. “This will be wood from [Irving’s] land or from any other private woodland owners. That’s the beauty of this location — with maybe five phone calls I can wrap my arms around a million acres of timber.”
All of this, said James Irving, should quell concerns about his company’s intent and demonstrate his personal and business philosophy about Maine.
“There should be no fear of [what we are doing] in Maine,” he said. “In fact we want the bragging rights that what we are doing is right [and] our reputation means something.”