AUGUSTA — The head of the Maine Forest Service disputes a claim by the former manager of the Bigelow Preserve that the service has allowed excessive timber harvesting on the public reserve lands.

Friends of Bigelow, the group that brought a ballot question to voters in 1976 to protect the Bigelow Mountain range from development and conserve it as public land, released a letter from former preserve manager Steve Swatling, a licensed forester, that stated he resigned over concerns that too much timber was being cut from the preserve.

The group also said the Forest Service had allowed logging road improvements that were beyond what was allowed under the law that set up the preserve.

Swatling said he resigned because he believed the Forest Service was betraying the public’s trust that the preserve would be managed in a sustainable fashion. He said the efforts that led to a doubling of the timber harvest in 10 years were a result of the administration of Gov. Paul LePage pushing to increase state profits from cutting.

But Forest Service Director Doug Denico on Wednesday provided the Sun Journal with a 12-point summary of harvest activities on the preserve showing that, based on state data, more timber was growing than being cut over the past decade.

In his memo, Denico said about 21,000 of the 35,000 acres in the preserve are available for timber harvesting. He said the state calculates that about 8,175 cords of timber a year can be cut, while growth on the preserve amounts to about 9,600 cords a year.

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“For the 10-year time period under scrutiny, 2006 through 2015, the net growth on Bigelow exceeded harvest by approximately 5,600 cords,” Denico wrote in his summary.

Denico’s summary appears to confirm that harvesting rates on the preserve were accelerated in 2011, as Swatling stated, but it indicates that prior to 2011 only 61 percent of the net sustainable harvest was being taken from the land.

“This pace was unacceptable, given that much of Bigelow had not been harvested since acquired by (the Bureau of) Public Lands, and the unharvested area had conditions, such as over-mature poplar, requiring timber harvesting,” Denico wrote.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Denico said Swatling’s assertion that harvesting in the preserve had doubled over five years was mathematically correct. But, he said, the preserve was being under-cut during the prior five years.

“Someone is using some very specific, targeted math to come up with that kind of scenario,” Denico said.

He said Swatling was asked to increase the harvest levels to address a number of concerns, including the harvesting of poplar that was-over mature from a forest science perspective. Denico said portions of the preserve had not been cut since it came into state ownership in the 1970s.

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Denico said Swatling was never asked to violate any state timber-harvest policies or any of the special conditions required in the preserve.

“To our knowledge, such events did not take place,” Denico wrote.

Denico said roads to access the timber were built carefully, with special attention being given to water-control structures and future recreational vehicle access.

“Roads were well-built but not excessive in width, given their intended use,” Denico wrote.

Denico also said that barring any unforeseen natural or man-made incidents, such as a large fire or a timber-damaging weather event, there would be no timber harvested in the preserve after 2017 for as long as another decade.

He said the Forest Service’s next targeted area to work on would be on the Dead River Peninsula and in the Spring Lake forest units, which has not seen any extensive harvesting for several decades.

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Denico said that for 2016 it was likely the state’s timber harvest would be below what would be considered acceptable and sustainable, largely because of a mild winter that prevented loggers from harvesting areas at higher elevations because of a lack of snow cover and frozen ground.

He said that while the harvest levels in one year may be increased to make up for a shortage in other years, a variety of factors played into that decision, including whether there were profitable markets for the wood. Denico said the Forest Service was careful to not lower harvest levels so much that loggers who depend on the work would be left without an income.

Still, Denico said, in the mix of considerations state foresters use when determining how much wood to cut and where, the biggest was to maintain the overall health of the forest.

He said the Forest Service had a budget surplus of about $5 million as a result of increased harvesting in recent years and a strong demand for timber, but it wasn’t a result of overharvesting. The proceeds from timber harvesting on state lands are earmarked for the Bureau of Public Lands and public education.

“We weren’t driven to create the surplus,” Denico said. “It’s just that as the allowable cut went up, we were able to cut more and we didn’t have that many expenses.”

He said that depending on what happens with the markets for wood — “the million-dollar question” — the state may simply choose to not cut as much timber if it means losing money on it.

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