Chainsaw Environmentalists

Independent Landowners Cut Down Trees to Save the Forest

Although its southern half is dotted with sprawling suburban corridors, northern Maine is as empty and dark as a velvet stage curtain. The mixed forests—tall white pine, bristly spruce, oak and maple—seem to extend forever. "Most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1864 book The Maine Woods. "Except for the few burnt lands, the narrow intervals on the rivers and the bare tops of mountains…the forest is uninterrupted."

Bryan Foster

In the early 1980s, clearcuts as large as 32 square miles marred this landscape. Loggers had giant machines—feller-bunchers with saws that came out from the bottom like switchblades, and grapple skidders that could grab and drag a half-dozen trees with giant, crab-like pincers. Today, industrial landowners in Maine still cut at twice the forests" growth rate, according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Some activists have responded by blocking roads and locking themselves to heavy machinery.

But one of the most vocal proponents of forestry reform in Maine is not a hot-blooded youth, but septuagenarian Mel Ames, who goes through the forest with a flannel shirt, boots and a chainsaw.

Ames drives into his 520-acre forest with Pepsi cans and fallen leaves shaking in the flatbed of his old GMC Sierra. He stops and points to a maple with a frost crack. "There’s no sense in growing a cracked tree like this," he says, starting his Husqvarna chainsaw and bringing it down on the maple.
All across the country, nonindustrial private forest owners (NIPFs) like Ames demonstrate how logging can maintain ecological structures and processes. These innovative landowners combine airy idealism with steel-toed practicality; they are chainsaw environmentalists, hard-hat hippies.

Technically, NIPFs are individuals or groups of people who own land, often small plots from 15 to 250 acres, but do not own timber-processing facilities. NIPFs, who range from physicians and lawyers to Forest Service and postal workers, don’t have the resources or training of industrial and federal forest managers, and they can be innovative because they aren’t driven by mill demands or controlled by agency rules. They often value their land more for scenery and wildlife than for timber production, and they get most of their income from other occupations or retirement savings. Overall, these people own half of our country’s forested land, slightly more than industry and federal and state government combined.

Jim Creek (actual name withheld), who lives a few hours drive from Ames, calls himself the "Rush Limbaugh of the Maine woods." His office is covered with angry posters, such as "Clinton Free Zone" and "Loggers are the Real Endangered Species." He tells of meeting Al Gore once and saying, "You like to hug trees? I like to cut them down."

"What I’m trying to do," Creek says, "is build a quality forest one tree at a time." His methods are simple. He identifies certain trees as crops because of their straightness, lack of limbs and marketability. He marks other trees as recruits to eventually replace them. Then he carefully cuts the trees in between.

Creek walks around the forest to each of his crop trees, ranging from white pine and basswood to oak and maple, with a notebook and a diameter tape, measuring his "girls." He narrates as he cuts lower limbs off small trees with a pair of garden shears: "I"m going to leave a lot of this pine," he says in one place. "I know it’s thicker than a dog’s back, but I need to grow these trees another couple decades before I can see which to keep."

Such sustainable forestry practices aren’t fully adaptable to industrial landowners. They may be profitable, but they aren’t profit-maximizing. Much of the cost comes in the amount of time spent on the land, what conservationist Wendell Berry called a high "eyes to acres" ratio. But through such practices, NIPFs could potentially move the U.S. toward resource self-sufficiency while maintaining the ecological integrity of the forest. Today, for example, the USFS supplies just five percent of the nation’s softwood lumber (compared to 25 percent a decade ago, before the spotted owl plan and restrictions on new road building). We import 33 percent of the softwood we consume, much of it from old-growth forests in Canada and Siberia.

Sustainable forestry could be encouraged by requiring landowners to submit timber management plans to state agencies, as is already required in some states. But administration is expensive and enforcement difficult, particularly among landowners protective of private property rights. Other policy changes could reduce financial pressure so that landowners don’t need to cut so hard: reduction of estate taxes that force the sale of timber or land when owners die; replacement of property taxes with timber taxes that landowners pay only when they harvest; and low-interest federal loans on standing timber that could be repaid slowly through selective harvests.

Landowners could also join forest management associations. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), for example, has developed a Forest Bank program in which landowners get a guaranteed annual return from timber if they turn over harvesting to the organization. In Wisconsin, the Timber Green cooperative allows landowners to have their wood harvested with less-invasive procedures from a selected group of loggers and foresters, then cut and dried at a coop-owned mill and solar kiln. The wood is marketed for a much higher price than they would otherwise receive. Timber certification organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), now have group programs where consulting foresters pay for certification, then pass on a share of the costs to each landowner. The wood harvested from the property can be marketed for premium prices much like organic food. Finally, The Forest Trust has a database of innovative loggers and forestry consultants across the country who can help NIPFs better manage their land.

"I"m not sure how sustainable forestry should be encouraged," says David Owen, a Montana landowner. "Maybe it’s landowner education. Or maybe it’s just individual, and our children need to be brought up to respect themselves and other living things." Owen and his wife have tried to infuse a land ethic in their children by bringing them out to the property to help pile brush and mark trees, along with taking them on hikes in nearby Glacier National Park. Whether or not the children become landowners, all of them will better understand and care about the forest.