Jerry Sass

Spring 2000
Jerry Sass
Jerry Sass practices low-impact forestry in his 75-acre woodlot in N. Anson. Matt Scease photo.

Nine Practices for a Sustainable Forest
Preserving Old Logging Technology

By Matt Scease

Watching landowner and logger Jerry Sass step lightly through the hush of a pine stand, you wouldn’t think his 75-acre woodlot in the central Maine town of North Anson represents a philosophical battleground in the state’s forestry wars. But this self-described hermit is coming out of his shell to give tours of his property – to reveal a brand of low-impact forestry that values forest health, aesthetics and wildlife at least as much as the price of pulp wood.

In the log yard next to Sass’s barn sits a red tractor with a winch on the back. This machine serves as his skidder, dragging – or “twitching” – felled trees out of the forest. The 150-foot cable, Sass says, means he doesn’t have to drive as far off the skid trail to retrieve a log. The result is less soil damage and fewer scarred trees and crushed saplings. “Of course, I can’t hook on more than three trees at a time,” says Sass. “Some skidders can hook nine or ten.”

But volume has never been the goal of Sass’s labors in the varied stands of trees contained on his property. He estimates that he cuts just 4,000 board feet of timber a year and may take only a couple of truckloads out of the woods over the course of a winter. His real aim is a diverse, healthy, working forest.

On a walk through the woodlot, Sass points out trees of many different ages and species: mature hemlock stands; tall solitary pines; open fields where fir and spruce stand waist high; others where deciduous poplars and maples sprout. “That’s the only red pine on the lot,” he says, pointing to a 70-foot specimen. That one will stay.

Jerry Sass
Jerry Sass. Matt Scease photo.

Sass twitches the sawlogs out of the forest, as well as any part of the treetop that he can sell for pulp or use for firewood. The leftover branches or slash are left to decompose and renew the nutrients in the soil. Larger, less environmentally-minded logging operations will run the branches and treetops through a chipper and take chips and all out of the forest, but Sass has learned that, in the forest, nothing goes to waste.

On the main logging road through the property, water bars run across the downhill slopes to stop erosion. Sass got some “conservation seed” and spread it on the trails, but it didn’t take, so he has planted crown vetch in its place. The viney ground cover prevents soil on the trail from washing into a nearby brook.

“Here’s an exotic tree,” Sass calls out at a fork in the trail. “A blight resistant American chestnut.” He examines the tin tag fastened to its trunk about chest high. “I planted this 14 years ago.”

Like the chestnut, Sass is not a native of Maine’s forests. He arrived here from Cape Cod, a chemist who wanted a taste of the simple life. He built a homestead in 1972, which he has since filled with books and a couple of woodstoves. The barn he built in 1986 with wood harvested from his property.

A member of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine (SWOAM) and numerous environmental groups, Sass was active in the Ban Clearcutting campaign. When SWOAM came out in favor of Governor King’s Compact for Maine’s Forests, he quit the organization in protest. He rejoined but is threatening to leave for good this time.

Sass spent last Election Day at his local polling place collecting signatures for a new forestry referendum organized by Jonathan Carter. He was uneasy at first. “I wondered if they were going to tar and feather me. But I got one signature every six minutes,” a good figure in a town that is conservative on forestry issues.

Sass is passionate about the devastation caused by clearcutting. “I went on a historical society tour of cellar holes,” along the old Canada Trail, he explains. “Most of it was on paper company land. It looked like the surface of the moon. They had butchered it, just butchered it. They stick a couple of thousand evergreens in the ground, and they have a big sign there: ’Red pine plantation, a working forest in action.’ They have a small patch of a couple of acres, and 50 times that area is desolation. Desolation.”

A Wood-Mizer portable sawmill completes Sass’s self-contained operation. The gasoline-powered mill has the general size and shape of a Polynesian outrigger, except that it’s made of metal and painted bright orange. The engine and saw are mounted on a carriage that runs on a rail down the length of the chassis; the log stays motionless on the bed while it’s cut.

A pile of poplar sawlogs waits on one side of the sawmill, neatly stacked dimensional lumber on the other side. “My 2 x 4s are really 2 inches by 4 inches,” he says. “A lot of dimensional lumber is more like 1-1/2 by 3-1/2. My 2 x 4s probably have 50 percent more lumber than your average one from the lumber yard.

“The Wood-Mizer is terrific. It does a very good job,” he says. The thickness of the band-saw blade is about 3/32 of an inch, thinner than the quarter-inch blade of some saws. Sass likes the result: “You make less sawdust and more lumber.” Mechanical problems have plagued the portable mill lately, but several calls to the manufacturer and a visit from the mechanic have gotten it to pass muster today.

Using a peavey (a thick wooden staff with a hinged hook at one end), Sass muscles a fir log from the wood pile onto the bed. He checks the bottom of the log and sees a dark, damp hole near its heart: butt rot, a bacterial infection common to fir trees. Without cutting it, there’s no telling how much of the log is ruined.

He decides to proceed. A series of adjustments to the blade’s height, and Sass is ready to mill the log. He pulls down the clutch, engaging the blade and sending the whole carriage down the length of the log. A few cuts later, and the first side is more or less flat and square. A small motor on the bed of the sawmill rotates the log to cut the next side.

Sass’s black Labrador, Pudge, sits peacefully next to the whining mill, content to let the fine sawdust cover his hindquarters. Gradually Sass’s adjustments and the whipping blade transform the log into dimensional lumber.

After winding up with several 2 x 3s, we look at the ends affected by the butt rot. It had spread 3 or more feet up the trunk, so the lumber loses 4 feet from the rotten ends, and Jerry loses a third of the board feet. He logs the sawmill activities into a spiral bound notebook.

Little goes to waste here. Some of the slab wood left over from the mill goes into the woodstove. Thinner pieces are used as “stickers” to separate the dimensional lumber as it air-dries in the yard. The next task is to find a buyer for the wood, and finding the right niche market for sustainably harvested wood is a different type of challenge from winnowing out rotten logs.

One of Sass’s regular customers comes all the way from the York County town of Wells. “I think he just likes to take his wife for a drive,” he laughs. This customer wanted quarter sawn lumber, which is demanding, finicky work. The kerf on the saw (the thickness of the blade and the amount of wood it turns into sawdust) is so good that the customer got 20% more wood than he bargained for. Sass sold the remaining butt logs to a buyer from Connecticut.

He occasionally sells pulp wood to a nearby paper mill, but if their yards are full and supply is soaring, “They’ll offer you next to nothing.”

Sass, a member of MOFGA, uses no chemical herbicides or pesticides on his property, a fact he could use as a marketing tool. “This is kind of an offshoot of the organic gardening movement.” Just as some people are willing to pay a little more for certified organic produce, “Green Certification” is one avenue into the niche market of consumers who are willing to pay a premium for sustainably harvested wood. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), based in California, is one of several groups that certifies timberlands if their management meets certain environmental and social criteria.

Sass is in the process of getting his woodlot certified through FSC, but he is wary: “It’s beginning to look like it’s kind of a scam. Some of these big companies like Irving are green certified, and their land is not so great.”

At the edge of his property, Sass points to a clearing in the forest on the other side of a stand of hemlocks. There the abutting landowner clearcut his land several years ago. A tangled mass of raspberry bushes is all the neighbor has to show for it so far.

Sass has a different future in mind for his land. He is negotiating with a non-profit foundation to work the forest as he does after his death. “I have a list of practices they have to follow. No trees less than 6 inches in diameter to be taken out. No machines over 60 horsepower. No annual harvest more than annual growth.”

And what about Sass’s future? “They can cremate me and throw my ashes down this old well,” he laughs. He’d stopped to say a short eulogy for Sam, a dear, departed canine companion buried there. Clearly this forest is the most important memorial Sass plans to leave.

Matt Scease is an environmental organizer and writer. He lives in Bowdoinham.

Nine Practices for a Sustainable Forest

Jerry Sass has been negotiating with a non-profit foundation to manage his property after his death. Below are nine conditions for the management of the woodlot, as Sass has written them:

1. “Only small equipment (less than 60 horsepower) machinery allowed.

2. Harvesting to be conducted only at such times that the ground is solidly frozen.*

3. No whole tree harvesting allowed: all trees greater than 6″ DBH (diameter at breast height) to be cut to length not to exceed 29 feet before hauling out to minimize damage to residual stands and new growth.

4. Annual harvest not to exceed 40 cords total, which shall be cumulative, i.e., 80 cords every other year if there was no harvest for the previous year. However, it is strongly urged that harvesting be on an annual basis to maintain biodiversity and uneven stand management.*

5. In all cases emphasis will be given to harvesting blowdowns, insect-damaged and over-mature trees, to thinning out over-crowded stands and putting the growth on premium future crop trees, the overall emphasis being on a quality value-added product than a quantity of low-value wood.

6. If/as needed, trails will be maintained to prevent erosion, etc. by installation of water bars, seeding, culverts, ridges, etc.

7. No motorized vehicles will be allowed use of the property outside of those involved directly in harvesting/maintaining the woodlot. It is suggested that the land continue to be posted No Hunting (by written permission only), but this is optional.

8. All boundary lines are to be maintained/ checked annually. This is very important as there are on-going skidder operations on all sides of the property.

9. All harvesting operations will be conducted under the supervision of a licensed Maine Forester.”

* Exceptions to the above: In case of natural disasters only of wind, disease, or fire the above harvesting provisions may be waived solely for dealing with the disaster as soon as possible, whereupon all restrictions shall again apply.

Preserving Old Logging Technology

Sometimes older logging methods may meet the special needs of woodlot owners. Until the 1950s, the logging scoot was used to yard logs and pulpwood, keeping logs clean – a necessity in the days before debarkers. Today, dirty logs can be a problem for portable band mill operators. Perhaps the scoot is an answer to this problem on some woodlots.

Several years ago, the Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Orono started recording plans for logging and processing equipment that was usually built by the user who copied traditional designs. Most of this equipment probably was not planned on paper, but was just built. Some of this equipment is little used now and is starting to rot or rust into oblivion.

The Museum published a history and plans of the logging scoot used in New England to haul logs to portable sawmills and to truck roads for over a century, as well as for yarding pulpwood and other products. These detailed plans are based on a scoot design used by the author on portable mill operations in the 1950s. Included in the 13 drawings are examples of older designs. Copies of The Logging Scoot: History and Design are available for $8 from Maine Forest and Logging Museum, PO Box 456, Orono ME 04473-0456. The Museum also has published Maine Forest History: A Reader’s Guide, available for $2.

We are interested in continuing this project and invite input from readers who have examples of equipment that was designed and built for woods work. We would appreciate initial sketches or photos of any such equipment.

The Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley, Maine, across the Penobscot River from Orono, has an up and down sawmill, blacksmith shop, settlers’ house, Lombard Steam Log Hauler, several bateau and a number of other features. It is open for self-guided tours most of the year and is fully operational on two Living History weekends, Woodsmen’s Day, Children’s Day, and Blacksmith Roundup. For further information call 207-581-2871.

– Richard A. Hale


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