Profiles of Low-Impact Forestry Practitioners

By Mitch Lansky

Mel Ames proves you can get there from here

Mel and Betty Ames have been managing their woods in Atkinson for over 50 years. When Mel first started buying the land, in the 1940s, it had been cut over and only had around 15 cords to the acre. He now has around 600 acres of forest. After decades of cutting, most stands now have 20-30 cords to the acre, with some averaging 35-40 cords and other stands (with pine) having more than 50 cords to the acre. His growth rates are now a multiple of the state average. The proceeds from his cutting helped Mel and Betty raise eight children.

Mel got his forestry training at nearby Foxcroft Academy. The Academy was inspired by Maine forester Austin Cary to advocate sustained yield, rather than cut-and-run forestry. When he graduated in 1946, Mel started buying up woodlots and managing them based on what he learned, and as time went on, based on his experience.

Mel does not have rigid, long-term management plans. He cuts trees because there is a market and he wants to make money. But he has an inner sense about how to cut. He waits until trees have their highest values. He keeps stands well spaced for optimal growth. He ensures the stands are stocked with quality trees. He works with the species that are growing. If the stand is early successional, with a poplar overstory and a fir understory, that is what he grows. When he is cutting bigger trees, he sometimes thins adjacent saplings if they are crowded.

Because he works with succession and keeps full stocking, he is creating more late-successional habitat. He has pine martens living in his woodlot and birds that need interior forest.

Mel does not impose harvesting systems to stands. He cuts in a way that leaves a forest stocked with good quality trees. When he is done (usually he removes around 25-30% of the trees), you could label it "selection," "irregular shelterwood," or some other silvicultural system, but that "system" is a response to the stand conditions.

His woods technology began with horses, then jitterbugs, crawlers, bombadiers, a tracked skidder, and now a small skidder (John Deere 440). He does minimal damage to stands with cable winching and skidding the logs out. Sometimes he forwards shorter-length wood with a trailer. He and his son Russ are careful in the woods because it is obvious to them that damaging residual trees is destroying future value. They are now cutting high-quality sawlogs and veneer that Mel had tended over many decades. They can see the results. Mel jokingly says that well-managed forests can beat blue-chip stocks for returns.

Sam Brownís Low-Impact Forestry

Sam Brown is from the fifth generation of a family that cut the great white pines of Wisconsin and Minnesota and moved west to log the Douglas fir. His father worked for Weyerhaeuser. Instead of carrying on the traditio of moving west towards the frontier (there was no frontier left) Brown moved east to Maine. "Iím using some of the wealth generated from those forests to do a little restitution," says Brown. He is managing around 300 acres of his own land, called "Steadfast Farm," in Cambridge.

Samís emphasis is on what he calls "low-impact forestry," and he has worked hard to develop the equipment and methods to achieve his goals. Three key elements in his logging system are his articulated-framed, tracked Dion forwarder, his radio-controlled winch, and his road system. Sam can minimize logging roads and skid trails by cutting narrow paths for his forwarder every 150 feet. This compares quite favorably with mechanical harvesters that need trails every 40 or so feet. Heavy equipment can damage tree roots through rutting and compaction, so the fewer the trails, the better.

Sam practices a short-wood yarding system. Instead of putting out trees whole (branches, tops, and all) as do mechanical harvesters and grapple skidders, Sam limbs the trees where they fall, using efficient techniques learned from Scandinavian expert Soren Erickson. He then uses a radio-controlled cable winch to drag the logs to his forwarder which is equipped with a loader. The logs are bucked to the most practical lengths for the best markets before loading.

The trailer, onto which the logs are loaded, is also tracked and it is powered by his crawlerís transmission. This means that he is not dragging the load, but carrying it. The vehicleís tracks do less damage to the ground than a wheeled tractor in general--but they can still be destructive to root systems of trees.

The machine is only six feet wide, but Sam clears brush and branches a few extra feet on either side to avoid tangling. These trails, which he cuts on the contour, and from which he loads his trailer, are unobtrusive. With his short-wood system, he avoids the wasteful and destructive yarding areas associated with whole-tree logging. Whole-tree yarding areas are at least one, and sometimes two, tree lengths in width, plus the width of the road.

Sam has put around $30,000 into his machine (which he bought used). If he were building it now, it would cost more. Such a cost means it would be prohibitive for a small operation of only a few hundred acres, even though it is quite appropriate for small woodlots. Sam does cut on other peopleís lands. Samís system is intermediate between a small farm tractor or horse and the larger equipment commonly used in the industrial forest.

The expense of his equipment compares favorably with a skidder, and is a fraction of the cost of whole-tree harvesters and grapple skidders or the Scandinavian mechanical harvester/processor/forwarder systems. Of course, he also cuts less wood with his system (4 or 5 cords a day, working alone) than these other systems can, but he would rather see more people working with smaller, less-destructive machines, than just a few people working on the larger, more expensive machines.

Sam is amazed at how easily banks will give out loans for the more expensive, more destructive equipment--as long as the borrowers can promise the necessary cash flow. "To pay off those loans you have to work those machines 26 hours a day," he suggests. "The short-term loans donít encourage long-term management."

Sam uses a variety of winching aids to minimize damage. Instead of wrapping a chain around the log to be winched, for example, he uses a grapple. With the grapple he does not have to lift or roll the log, and, unlike a chain, the pulling force during winching is at the center of the log, rather than at the top. He occasionally uses self-releasing snatch blocks, attached to trees, when his trees are at a difficult angle or when he has to winch around objects.

Sam sometimes uses a smaller machine, called a "radio horse," for prebunching logs for the forwarder. The radio horse also has a a radio-controlled winch which can be used with multiple snatch blocks to concentrate thinnings from a wide area without having to move the machine. To get the radio horse where he wants he, he pulls out the cable, hooks it to a tree, and then winches the machine along on its runners to the tree.

At the time I wrote this profile, Sam was cutting trees marked by his forester Joachim Maier, who is originally from Germany. Sam now has a forester license and does his own marking. Joachimís immediate management goals for stands like Samís are to remove poor-quality, high-risk trees and to give residual trees optimal spacing for growth and health. He noted that in Germany, foresters in the past often made their forests too perfect. "Every tree was a board painted green at the top," he said. The forests there lacked "crummy trees." "A healthy forest needs some sick trees," observed Joachim. Dead trees or rotten trees are important habitat for numerous insects, birds, and fungi that are essential to the maintenance of forest health. Ironically, "sanitized" forests, where every tree looks perfect, are unstable.

In Maine, Joachim observed, there is no shortage of poor-quality trees suitable for wildlife. There is, however, a shortage of high-quality trees that have the potential to grow big and old. The forest has been highgraded (taking the best and leaving the rest) repeatedly. He and Sam ate trying to reverse this process.

Both Joachim and Sam have visited old-growth sites in Maine and want their managed forest to have similar characteristics in terms of height, size, and volume. With their light removals of poor-quality trees and their spacing of good-quality trees, they expect to enhance growth towards more ecologically-desirable stand structures. Joachim hopes that with such treatment, he can have 100-year-old trees attaining the size one would associate with a 120-year-old tree in an old-growth stand. While he is striving to minimize damaging impacts to the soil and residual trees, he is striving to maximize the impact of stand improvement.

Although aesthetics is not the primary goal of managing for diversity and quality, it is certainly a by-product. In the winter, cross-country skiers use Samís skid trails and admire the beauty of the forest.

Despite myths propounded by some industrial foresters, doing light selection cutting has not resulted in major blowdowns. It has also not bankrupted Sam, though, admittedly, the initial cuts of small volumes of low-quality wood are not making him rich either. Those initial cuts and his road system were ecological and economic "investments." Wood prices, however are rising. "Iím now breaking even. Iím paying for my costs and my taxes." After 20 years of cutting, the percentage of high-quality wood per acre has markedly increased over what it was when he started. Subsequent cuts will be of high-quality wood with high-paying markets. "The long-term returns look good," says Sam.