|Frank Robey is working to prevent the timber harvest planned for the Maine section of the White Mountain National Forest in Stoneham, Albany and Mason Townships. Photo by Dave Gagne|
By Joyce White
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commented, “Forests are the lungs of our land.” Seventy-five years ago FDR recognized the importance of forests in keeping our environment healthy. How much more important now to keep our national forests intact and thriving with earth’s population reaching 7 billion.
The major responsibility for our national forests lies with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), a huge national system with personnel trained in forestry programs in colleges and universities. Some of us in Maine, and probably elsewhere, believe it’s time for the USFS to change course in view of growing evidence that trees in our national forests, especially the large old trees, are much more valuable standing upright and healthy than cut down for building material and paper products.
I have long remembered the wise observation of my 3-1/2-year-old granddaughter, Katie, as we walked through the slash of a neighbor’s newly-cut woodlot. “Who made all this mess?” she said indignantly. “They ought to have to clean it up,” adding as an afterthought, “I like trees standing up.”
I like trees standing up, too, and I know I’m not alone.
Right now, the USFS plans to harvest a large area of the section of White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) that lies in Stoneham, a small town in Maine’s western foothills. One man, Frank Robey, has been crusading to save the trees in WMNF, and not just because it is in his backyard, as his critics suggest. Numerous reasons exist to maintain healthy forests, he says, including their ability to store carbon and release oxygen into the atmosphere.
Robey moved near the Maine section of WMNF in 2005 and began exploring that forest daily. In 2006 he learned of a major USFS logging project planned for the Jackson, N.H., area of WMNF, the Than Brook Project.
Robey made many trips to the Than Brook Project, photographing the area before, during and after logging. A self-described novice at the beginning, he observed and documented what he saw happening, including violations of USFS stated plans to protect vernal pools and streams and prevent rutting of existing roads. His reports were consistently ignored, he says. He notes that the USFS does not do the actual logging. Instead, projects are put out to bid to logging companies.
Why was he so involved with the New Hampshire project? Robey believes national forests should be sacred areas, off limits to logging – hence his present efforts to prevent the massive timber harvest planned for the Maine section of WMNF, termed the Albany South Project, an area that encompasses parts of Stoneham, Albany and Mason Townships.
The WMNF is around 780,000 acres, with about 47,000 acres in Maine. Since Albany South became a USFS scheduled action in 2012, Robey has walked twice daily in the WMNF with Tess, his young black Lab, not only for the pleasure of being in the peaceful forest. He is also learning, exploring, observing, mapping and photographing details – stone walls, cemeteries, cellar holes, wildlife trails, vernal pools, which oaks are producing acorns this year, which brooks run all winter. His video camera captures the activities of beavers, raccoons, moose, coyotes, deer, fox and bear while he is back at home. The USFS personnel cannot possibly spend that kind of time learning the intimate details of the area they plan to have harvested by loggers.
For all his many hours scoping out the area on foot, Robey says it is impossible for one person to cover the whole area, and the USFS lacks the personnel to adequately assess all sensitive details. Vernal pools and intermittent brooks dry up in summer, and deer yards are harder to find once trees leaf out and deer have dispersed. He comments, “If they don’t know it’s there, they can’t protect it.”
A member of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, Robey is a self-described “big proponent of NO LOGGING in national forests. The FS will say they are implementing their Forest Plan, but the last one came out in 2005 for all of WMNF.” Forest Plans are revised about every 15 years and define USFS plans, he explains, but the world is a very different place now than in 2005. In view of climate change, he believes we should de-emphasize timber harvest as a management plan and instead emphasize the importance of live trees for storing carbon and moderating the extremes of climate events.
Robey refers to a study published in the journal Nature that found tree growth accelerates with age and that suggests that the world’s oldest trees can play an important part in mitigating climate change. That revelation goes against the long-held assumption that trees lose their vigor with age. He says of his observations in the Than Brook area, “They cut giant trees! Why cut those old giants?! It’s very disheartening to see the damage.” He doesn’t want that to happen in Maine, can see no good reason to cut and many reasons not to. A look at Google Earth shows an alarming amount of deforestation in the Northeast, especially in Maine.
Robey explains that 125 stands are scheduled to be harvested, 15 of which will be clear-cuts the USFS describes as between 10 and 30 acres. Remaining cuts are to be of varying sizes described as group selection, single tree selection and seed trees. The largest area of selected cutting is 118 acres. With all the roads needed – major ones to accommodate loaded logging trucks and smaller skid roads, all connecting like a giant spider web – he estimates more than 7,000 acres will be disturbed. (All numbers are somewhat fluid for the project and could change when the FS issues its report after its 30-day comment period, set to end this fall.)
Since 2010 the USFS has been logging in the Four Ponds Project of WMNF in Albany and Mason Townships, which shares two boundaries with Albany South, and the FS is treating that as separate from the Albany South Project. Since they are contiguous, Robey points out that about 20,000 of the 47,000 of Maine WMNF acres will be disturbed. Due to the cumulative effects of these two large logging projects, he believes the FS should be doing an Environmental Impact Statement rather than the less stringent Environmental Assessment.
The impact on the environment in Maine’s WMNF and the surrounding area will surely be huge. For seven or eight years, huge machines will build roads, cut trees, move logs on heavy trucks, spew noise and fumes into the air, and destroy roads while they destroy the peace of the forest and displace wildlife. The damage won’t end after the harvest is finished but will continue with silted streams and tributaries, tangles of brambles, destroyed native plants. Studies show that it takes 140 years to replace the carbon stored in 100-year-old trees. Why is the FS pursuing this? Only the logging companies will gain.
In The Week (Sept. 18, 2015), Thomas Crowther of Yale University is quoted regarding a study showing the number of trees on Earth has fallen by 46 percent since the dawn of human civilization – so there are fewer trees now than at any point in human civilization. The implications for climate change are profound: Trees extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow while emitting oxygen. But cutting and burning trees releases the carbon again, and the fewer trees there are, the less atmospheric carbon is trapped.
During July and August of 2015, Lucy LaCasse in conjunction with the Kezar Lake Watershed Association (KLWA) organized experiential and informational walks into four of the proposed Albany South harvest sites. Robey shared his intimate knowledge of the forest he has been exploring and mapping as he guided these walks with LaCasse.
Then, on September 6, LaCasse detailed to an impressively large crowd the effects of the proposed Albany South timber harvest on Kezar Lake and its watershed. LaCasse used updated information from the USFS indicating that it has, in response to efforts of people like Robey and LaCasse, reduced the planned areas of harvest to a small degree.
LaCasse also provided handouts with photos (many by Robey), maps provided by the USFS and five possible plans outlined for Albany South Integrated Resource Project (the USFS term for the project).
Alternative 1, to do nothing, is unlikely but a possibility many of us wish for.
Alternative 2 is a slightly modified version of the plan proposed in 2012 with timber harvesting on 2,365 acres, 1,014 of those within the Kezar Lake Watershed involving 47 different Harvest Units. More than 3 million board feet of timber would be pulled just from the watershed area of the proposed cut. At 200 to 300 trucks per million board feet, that’s 600 to 900 logging trucks moving around the upper reaches of our watershed during the project, the printed material states.
Alternative 3 would reduce harvest activity in the watershed to 394 acres (down from 1,014 acres in Alternative 2). Alternatives 4 and 5 relate to use of access roads.
I’m not against all logging. I live in a house built from lumber and I burn two cords of firewood every year. Privately owned woodlots can be managed wisely and sustainably. I do object to clear-cutting in general and especially commercial logging in national forests that have been set aside for preservation and protection.
The USFS personnel are well trained and dedicated to the job they’re paid to do. I suggest that they could still do their jobs, still earn a paycheck, if the USFS focus changed from managing forests by cutting down trees to managing by keeping trees alive and healthy, with only occasional, minimal cutting done by USFS personnel rather than commercial loggers.
Underlying the many reasons for the USFS to abandon or at least greatly reduce timber harvest in WMNF is my visceral feeling that we humans and the nonhuman forest dwellers need whatever wild places still exist to remain wild and intact because of the importance to our sense of well-being. Recent movements to get children back into wild places to counteract “nature deficit disorder” and to reduce feelings of depression in people of all ages confirms that others derive that feeling of well-being from woods walking – not just from the extra oxygen in the air, but because trees are living entities, seemingly different from two-legged, four-legged and winged animals but still with a kind of alive presence. Stephen Buhner in “Plant Intelligence” explains that plants, including trees, “possess highly sophisticated neural systems and while it does not look like our brain, it really is, in actuality, a brain.” Those plant brains are what we call their roots.
As we went to press, the USFS comment period for the proposed Albany South Project was set to close.
Anyone interested in commenting following publication of the Draft Environmental Assessment can contact the USFS district ranger, Katie Stuart at [email protected] and ask to be put on the contact list.
About the author: Joyce White gardens in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.