Low-Impact Forestry and MOFGA: A Program in the Making
By Mitch Lansky
To some, forests are an extension of the farm, but they grow wood and fiber rather than food. Desirable trees are “crops,” other plants are “weeds,” and organisms that might feed on crop trees are “pests.” This viewpoint is formalized within the government – the Forest Service is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In reaction to farm metaphor, Aldo Leopold, in “The Land Ethic,” wrote, “to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic forest commodity,” puts the forester in the conqueror role – which is ultimately self defeating, he believed. “Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.”
The forest as farm metaphor is flawed not only because the industrial rather than organic model is used, but also because forests are complex, natural ecosystems. Forests were the natural state of most of Maine’s land before it was cleared. Inevitably, when Maine farms are abandoned, they revert to forests. In a natural forest, nobody has to plant trees, thin, weed or kill pests. A natural forest is self regulating and can persist for thousands of years. If disturbed, it can be resilient and recover without outside help.
Some industrial forestry has simplified forest ecosystems to raise a fiber crop, but much more of Maine’s forest has been subjected to mining and neglect; the logger cuts the best and leaves the rest. This practice of “high grading” degrades the forest.
A Healthy Alternative
In the 1990s, a group of landowners, foresters and loggers sought a healthier alternative to industrial and mining forestry. This “Low-Impact Forestry” group recognized that negative impacts of logging can be minimized so that the remaining forest resembles a natural forest. This alternative starts with the forest as ecosystem and seeks to manage for long-term benefits, not for one cut. The LIF group sought and publicized examples of excellent forestry.
Practitioners such as Mel Ames, Ron Locke and Sam Brown continually improve the forest and keep it well stocked and diverse. They grow trees to large diameters, which improves options for high-paying markets and has biological and aesthetic advantages. Big old trees, whether standing or down and rotting, create wildlife habitat. While logging, these practitioners minimize damage to residual trees and to soil, and minimize the area of trails and yards.
The LIF Project produced articles and demonstrations. At a demonstration at forester Barrie Brusila’s farm, Ron Poitras, then Hancock County Planning Commission director, wondered if LIF might interest woodlot owners in his region.
The Ellsworth Era
Poitras questioned 1,300 woodlot owners in Hancock and Washington Counties. The large, enthusiastic response favored having the Planning Commission offer programs, so the LIF Project moved to Ellsworth.
Those years brought conferences, workshops, trainings, pamphlets, a demonstration woodlot and a Web site. A dedicated group of loggers was willing to do LIF logging. With UMaine, we developed simple methods to measure the impacts of logging on residual trees and on soil. We were on the verge of setting up an organization that would be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and could do value-added marketing.
A few events ended the Ellsworth project. After J.D. Irving’s Maine woodlands were certified, we withdrew from the FSC certification process, because so many of Irving’s practices were unacceptable to us. A grant did not materialize. In 2000, my house burned down. I had to drop my involvement and rebuild.
Although the Hancock County Planning Commission dropped LIF, Poitras asked me to create a book from our information. Low-impact Forestry: Forestry as if the Future Mattered was published in 1992 by the Maine Environmental Policy Institute and has gone through two printings. The distributor is Chelsea Green.
What Do MOFGA Members Want?
Since then, LIF has been kept alive at the Common Ground Fair by Pete Hagerty, Sam Brown and others. They also run highly popular LIF workshops at MOFGA’s Common Ground every November. (Like most Maine farms, MOFGA’s Unity property has a woodlot that provides wood for buildings, firewood and pulpwood. Brusila developed a plan for the woodlot, and every year, workshop members cut trees according to that plan.)
This year Ben Ayers wondered if MOFGA might increase LIF services, since many MOFGA members have woodlots, and LIF is philosophically similar to organic agriculture. Ayers convened a group to explore such a change. The enthusiastic response resulted in a long list of potential projects.
Sam Brown and I presented these ideas to the MOFGA board, which agreed to increase LIF services depending on results of a survey in the June MOF&G. Early results indicate that members overwhelmingly would sacrifice short-term revenues for the long-term health and productivity of their woods. The primary interest of most was for wildlife, recreation and home needs, rather than strictly for income. Most want their woods harvested using draft animals. Many were strongly interested in more education and in a referral system for loggers and foresters.
Given sufficient interest among members, MOFGA could also offer:
• talks, workshops and literature on ecosystem-based forestry;
• talks, workshops and training on LIF logging techniques;
• a list of foresters and loggers who manage woodlots based on LIF goals and standards;
• a rating system to help landowners determine if they would like to hire particular LIF practitioners;
• a payment system that rewards loggers for the quality of what is left, not just the quantity and value of what is cut;
• encouragement for clearly communicating desired results;
• a model contract clarifying goals and standards for cuts and specifying incentives for results and disincentives for excess stand damage;
• apprenticeships in LIF;
• aid in marketing wood from LIF operations, possibly including concentration yards; value-added processing (milling, kiln drying); and/or identifying higher value markets before cutting (so that wood can be cut to appropriate lengths);
• cooperative purchasing and marketing;
• aid with economic and legal issues, including permanently protecting land from development or liquidation;
• continuing education on forest ecology and non-timber uses of forests;
• an educational Web site..