Beyond the Beauty Strip

Fall 2012
Beyond the Beauty Strip

By Mitch Lansky

This year, 2012, is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Beyond the Beauty Strip: Saving What’s Left of Our Forests (BTBS). In it I pointed out such trends as the sale of big land parcels, heavy cutting and short rotations on industry-owned lands, and increasing mechanization. These trends in the forest were leading to

• increasing parcelizations

• declining numbers of forest jobs

• decreasing forest industry tax revenues to the state and towns

• increasing dominance of forest land by seedlings and saplings

• decreasing representation of late-successional and old growth habitat

I suggested that unless we change our direction, we’ll wind up where we are headed. Since I wrote Beyond the Beauty Strip, 10 million acres, the equivalent of half the state, have been cut. Have the trends I identified changed or continued? I looked at recent state and federal forest surveys and other studies and found that although some positive developments have occurred in understanding forest ecosystem dynamics and in conserving a small percentage of the forest, the major negative trends have continued (see sidebar).

Key Factors

In BTBS, I identified key factors that explained these trends. While the large landowners may have ecological or social goals, their highest priority has been their bottom-line economic goals. Industrial landowners traditionally viewed their forests as a raw material resource to supply their mills. This goal shifted to having the woods be a “profit center” that required a desired return on investment. This led, increasingly, to land sales, as paper companies responded to global pressures to focus on their more profitable enterprises. As I was writing the book, industrial owners started selling off their land to investors with shorter ownership time horizons.

As companies focusing on real estate have bid up the price of forest land, the economic viability of long-term management for timber has diminished, leading to incentives to cut even harder, to further parcelize and to resell.

To save money on labor and reduce accidents, contractors have continued mechanizing their operations. Mechanization has led to big losses in woods jobs, and those losses have impacted forest-based communities. Logging wages, however, have not benefited from increased labor productivity. Because the big machines require 25 percent or more of the forest just for logging trails, the increase in labor productivity has led to a decrease in forest productivity.

As logging has become more mechanized, contractors have had to cut more and more wood just to pay for the machines. The contractors discovered that revenues from cutting on big landholdings have not kept up with increasing expenses. Some big contractors found the best way to make money is to buy, cut and then sell their own woodlands, feeding into the cycle of higher land prices, heavier cutting and increased parcelizations.

Paper mills too have been caught up in the global economy and have been sold off – some repeatedly. With each sale, more jobs have been lost and more state and local tax breaks have been granted to prevent mill shutdowns.

The statewide cut, when I wrote the book, was steadily increasing. Rather than consider ways to reduce the cut to sustainable limits, policy makers, based on the belief that Trend is Destiny, recommended increasing management intensity with plantations and herbicides to boost growth to meet “future demands.”

Basic Issues Ignored

Before, during and after I wrote BTBS, the state and other entities attempted to address perceived problems through initiatives such as these:

• The Tree Growth Tax Law to encourage sustainable forestry

• The Forest Practices Act to regulate forest harvesting (and reduce clearcuts)

• The Northern Forest Lands Study and Council to deal with large land sales and parcelization

• The Maine Council on Sustainable Forest Management to identify and encourage sustainable forestry

• The Maine Forest Biodiversity Project to deal with threats to habitats and species

• Liquidation Harvest Rules to prevent short-term heavy cutting and turnover of land

Despite these and other initiatives, problems persisted:

• Industrial landowners still sold off their landholdings.

• Many of these large holdings still got parcelized and sold to investors – often with shorter time horizons for ownership.

• Many landowners still removed tree volume faster than it grew back over millions of acres, especially in the northern three counties.

• Seedlings and saplings dominated millions more acres.

• Jobs in the woods continued to be lost to mechanization.

• Contractors continued to be on a treadmill – cutting more and more wood but not keeping up with expenses.

• As mills changed hands, mill towns have continued to face lower employment and lower tax revenues.

In short, we are still winding up where we were headed.

None of the initiatives addressed the crucial issues:

• the conflict between the landowners’ economic priorities versus society’s ecological and social priorities

• the conflict between the global economy and the local economy

• the domination of markets and the political process by a handful of big companies

If these key issues are not even discussed, they certainly will not be addressed.

Many “solutions,” such as the Tree Growth Tax Law, have catered to the big landowners, under the assumption that making ownership more profitable will create more jobs and make cutting more “sustainable.” This assumption turned out to be incorrect.

A 2010 Maine Forest Service report did mention the conflict between short-term economics and long-term forestry. It said that, based on net-present-value comparisons of selection for long-term improvements versus highgrading (cutting the best and leaving the rest), the long-term forestry gives inferior returns and is “economically irrational.”

Economic incentives are not fixed, natural laws that descend from heaven. They are political constructs that are continually changing. In our society, the most politically powerful organizations have successfully lobbied to favorably influence the tax code, regulations, and other incentives and disincentives.

In BTBS, I quoted anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To regulate a general system such as a society or a forest in accordance with the narrow purposes of one of its sub-systems … is to narrow the range of conditions under which the general system can survive.”

Highgrading may make short-term economic sense, but it is a disaster over the long run to ecosystems and social systems. That it can be deemed “rational” indicates that those doing the accounting are looking only at the value of what is removed, rather than at the combination of what is removed and what remains. A standing forest has value.

Our economic system, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product, looks only at things that can be priced. Ecosystem processes that society depends on, because they are not sold in markets, have no prices. So, under standard economic accounting, they do not exist. Further, our society values the present more highly than the future. This leads to the questionable practice of discounting activities that might benefit future generations.

What is really irrational is an economic system in which people think it is sane to benefit today at the expense of tomorrow, or this generation at the expense of future generations.

In BTBS I noted that people believe that technology, the free market and politics will fix any problem. But these “fixes” assume that ecological and social goals can be pursued only to the extent that they do not interfere with the “higher order” industrial economic priorities. The result is that attempts at dealing with ecological and social goals become distorted and continue to cause problems.

Managing for the Future

I argued that we need a new vision of the forest and how it fits into society. We need to ask how to manage as if the future mattered; how to pay for and account for this type of management; and how to measure progress toward the new goals and priorities.

Forestry, unlike many other economic pursuits, operates on a time scale of centuries. Our society seems incapable of thinking that far ahead. The future is discounted because society deems that the present is more important than the remote future. Yet every time the forest is cut, this helps determine what type of forest future generations will inherit.

The state has used computers to project present trends of supply and demand into the future, and has created strategies to try to meet the needs of this “future.” But these projections go for only 40 or 50 years, not for hundreds of years, and so do not confront the impossibility of continued growth in resource extraction in a world of limited resources, no matter how intense the management.

I recommended in BTBS that we envision a future use of the forest (and society) that could be sustained, and use computers to project backward – backcasting instead of forecasting – to see if and how we can get there from here. If we cannot figure out how to transition to sustainability, if “you can’t get there from here,” then our current social/economic structure quite likely will not persist.

Even if we all agreed right now on a change in direction, many barriers to change will make any transition difficult and delayed. But we don’t all agree, and the political process currently is cluttered with toxic discourse. Any initiative for change is countered by resistance to change.

In BTBS, I identified the concept of the “happy coincidence – that whatever industry does to pursue its goals just happens to also benefit forest ecosystems and society in general. And I listed numerous “myths” used to convince the public that these coincidences are real.

Those who want to continue degrading the forest have been coming up with numerous enticements, excuses, dire predictions and threats. Over the last 20 years, new myths have been created to make current practices appear to be “green” or “sustainable,” discouraging a closer look at what is actually happening.

For example, we are supposed to believe that since wood is a “renewable resource,” substituting wood biomass for fossil fuels to create electricity or even plastics is “green,” (despite studies questioning this strategy for reducing global warming). Ironically, one factor that helped allow Maine’s forest to recover from overcutting a century ago was the substitution of fossil fuels for wood.

We still have no regulatory protections against overcutting, so we have to rely on voluntary initiatives, such as certification, and, I suppose, non-voluntary economic downturns that reduce demand. While certified acreage is supposed to be “sustainable,” the heaviest cutting in the state is in the northern three counties that have the most certified acreage. Because wood is potentially “renewable” does not mean that all uses at any level of management and removal rates are sustainable.

Ecologically-based forestry manages forests within the range of variables to which species have adapted over thousands of years. Short-rotation, even-aged forestry, except in extreme habitats, lies outside this range for our Acadian Forest. Such heavy cutting does not allow development of late-successional forests, which once made up the majority of Maine acreage. Yet, some landowners who are cutting on relatively short rotations have Green certification.

Forests and climates are too complex for us to know precisely how to manage them sustainably. In the face of such complexity, the most reasonable response is humility. If we lower our impacts, both in consumption and management, we will create more options for future generations. Unfortunately, it is easier to state such theoretical goals than to make them happen in the real world – where corporations spend billions of dollars convincing the public to consume more.

If we don’t change our societal priorities, however, we will continue to wind up where we are headed.

This article is adapted from an in-depth look at the state of forestry 20 years after publication of Beyond the Beauty Strip, posted at Mitch Lansky is the town manager of Reed Plantation and, with his wife, Sue Szwed, a grafter for Fedco Trees.

The Industrial Forest: 20 Years Later

Industrial land ownership
 1988: 7.7 million acres 2005: 1.8 million acres
Percent of 11.6 million acres of large ownerships in Maine owned by land investors (Timber Investment Management Organizations, Real Estate Investment Trusts, large contractors, developers, etc.)
 1994: 6 percent 2005: 46 percent
Percent of large ownerships owned by government and conservation groups
 1994: 6 percent 2005: 16 percent
Extent of spruce-fir forest type in state
 1972: 7.9 million acres 2008: 5.6 million acres
Volume per acre, 2008
Northern megaregion (Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset counties) 14.3 cords
Southern megaregion 21.8 cords
State and public 21.8 cords
Percent of area in seedlings and saplings, 2008
Northern megaregion 37 percent (up from 30 percent in 2003, an increase of 664,800 acres)
Percent of acres in late succession or old growth
Presettlement Northern Maine 59 percent in stands over 150 years old
27 percent in stands over 300 years old
2008 2.4 percent in stands over 140 years old
0.3 percent in stands over 160 years old
0.08 percent in stands over 180 years old
Growth to removal ratios (growth/cut) in Northern megaregion, 2008
 All species 0.79
 Red spruce 0.67
 All hardwoods 0.63
 Sugar maple 0.53
Growth to removal ratio in Southern Maine, 2008
 All species 2.33
Change in volume from 2003 to 2008 in Northern megaregion
 Hardwoods -6.4 percent
 Spruce-fir -2.1 percent
Change in employment levels in forest-based jobs, 1990-2010
 Logging -24 percent
 Saw mills -39 percent
 Paper mills -62 percent
Forest acreage in Maine certified as “sustainable”
 1990 0 acres
 2010 7.6 million acres
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