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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Northern Forests Plan Issued

Air Date: Week of

Eric Westervelt of New Hampshire Public Radio takes a look at the Great North Woods and a recently finished plan for their future. After five years, the Northern Forest Lands Council has issued its recommendations for managing the twenty-five million acres of forest which spans New England and New York State. Local landowners and the timber industry are happy with the plan, which they believe will ward off development and preserve their livelihoods . . . but some environmentalists think the recommendations will do little to prevent devastating clearcutting in the eighty percent of the forest which will remain in private ownership.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

One of America's most densely populated areas, the Northeast, is also home to one of the nation's largest tracts of forest land. By the end of the 19th century, much of the northern parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, had been logged. But today, large tracts of near-wilderness have grown back. Here in majestic patches of tall green that stretch from Mt. Marcy in New York past Mt. Katahdin in Maine, there are more than 25 million acres of forestlands. But in recent years the North Woods have been shrinking, ceded to vacation home development for some of the millions who live within a day's drive, and to clearcutting by large timber companies. Five years ago, Congress created a regional council to study ways to protect the economic and ecological health of the region. Now at last they have released their draft plan. Eric Westerveldt of New Hampshire Public Radio has our report.

(Flowing stream water)

WESTERVELDT: Sunlight glares off the snowy banks of Indian Stream, spurring early spring runoff here at the headwaters of the Connecticut River, in extreme northwestern New Hampshire. It's part of the vast North Woods stretching from New York's Adirondack Mountains in the West through northern Vermont and New Hampshire, to the far reaches of Maine in the East. Though largely undeveloped, it's hardly pristine. The pine balsam fir and spruce trees helped build the cities and economies of early America. Today, these forests still uphold a strong yet troubled timber-based way of life.

(Flowing stream water)

WESTERVELDT: But the 26-million-acre forest is also home to moose, bear, loon, and osprey. Its rugged beauty is reflected in its two dozen mountains over 4,000 feet tall. A region where trout, salmon, and pickerel live in the cool waters of its numerous lakes, ponds, and rivers. It has the feel of wilderness. Yet it's less than an 8-hour drive away from 70 million people. And in the 1980s many of those people and their checkbooks threatened the future of the close-knit communities of the north country.

(Wood and wheels [a wheelbarrow?]; a cow lowing)

WESTERVELDT: Nancy Amey and her husband John own a 300-acre farm and 1,100 acres of timberland in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, twenty miles from the Canadian border. Timber cutting is still shut down for the winter, but caring for their livestock is a year-round job. This land has been in Amey's family since the 1860s. The real estate boom in the 1980s put them and many others under intense pressure to sell.

AMEY: I just didn't want them here. It just seemed like, why would all these people from Massachusetts and Connecticut and the southern part of the state want to come up here, and try to buy your land from you? It was like a personal offense.

WESTERVELDT: With 2 kids and deep roots in the north country, the Ameys were determined to hold onto their piece of the northern forest. But others did sell out. Squeezed by high land taxes and low timber and farm prices, some couldn't resist the deep pocket offers to turn their land into subdivisions or vacation homes. John Amey.

AMEY: The boom came here, too, for a while. There was several, I mean, 15 or 20 subdivisions in Pittsburgh of anywhere from 5 to 10 or 15 lots each. People were cashing in, actually, and taking advantage of the big buck.

WESTERVELDT: Fear of more speculative development led Congress in 1989 to create the Northern Forest Lands Council, a 16-member committee with representatives from all 4 states. Now after nearly 5 years, the Council has issued its draft recommendations for preserving the integrity of local economies and forests. Richard Ober, with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, says the report goes a long way toward helping landowners like the Ameys.

OBER: There are very strong recommendations that will deal with real land owner issues. Of rising property taxes, of estate taxes, of trying to find markets for their wood. Of knowing how to manage for the long term. Those are things that landowners are really grappling with.

WESTERVELDT: A core assumption of the report is that local timberland owners have been fairly good stewards of the land. That the ability of landowners to grow and cut trees has fed rural communities, and shielded the region from unbridled development. John Amy says he thinks the plan's call for tax reform will help ease pressure to over-cut or sell off forest land.

AMEY: I feel like I partially wrote the report. I'm that happy with it. When it's time to transfer our property to the next generation, if there were some real advantages there to make it easier to move it to the next generation without a high tax to pay, it would be most helpful.

WESTERVELDT: To help landowners hold onto their land, the Council recommends that each state tax the land on how it's currently used, not on its potential development value. It also calls for capital gains and other tax breaks, and a new tax on outdoor recreation equipment to help fund land management programs. The Council also recommends that the states look into setting aside particularly vulnerable and important forest tracts, possibly through public purchase, land trusts, or easements. But it does not propose any new large land reserves. More than 80% of the northern forest is in private hands, and the Council recommends that it stay that way. But some environmentalists involved in the northern forest debates say the Council's plan is soft, and contains nothing to address what they say is one of the biggest threats to the northern forest.

(Cessna radio voice: "Uh, Bangor Radio system 489-er 6 echo of 122.0 directly over moose headlight.")

WESTERVELDT: Easy sun cuts through thin clouds as the Environmental Air Force swoops low over northern Maine. A fragmented carpet of dark forest stretches as far as the eye can see, spotted with white, snow-covered lakes and huge bald patches. Rudy Engholm, the Environmental Air Force's New England director, dips the wing of his Cessna pontoon plane to get a better view of the massive clear-cuts below. Speaking on the plane's fuzzy intercom over the engine roar, Engholm says the devastation below is evidence of industrial forestry's liquidation of the Maine woods.

ENGHOLM: This whole area of rolling clear-cuts start to draw a line around the edge of this rolling clear-cut section, what is in excess of, uh, 20- or 25,000 acres.

WESTERVELDT: Engholm and his colleague, Charles Fitzgerald, point out that some industrial clear-cuts below have been replanted. But Fitzgerald says the replantings resemble one crop tree farms, not vibrant forests.

FITZGERALD: The problem with this is you are seeing the development of monocultural plantations. That in itself is a dangerous stop on the pesticide treadmill, means massive aerial spraying will have to occur periodically when there are outbreaks of one pest or another.

WESTERVELDT: Many forest biologists agree that clear-cutting can lead to serious long-term ecological damage. About half the northern forest is owned by large pulp, paper and timber companies. Engholm and Fitzgerald say the report doesn't adequately address the forest practices of those companies, or the economic changes in the forest products industry. What spurred Congress to create the Lands Council in part was a hostile takeover of Diamond International by Georgia Pacific in the late 80s. The sale sparked fears of increased clear-cutting, or even massive sell-offs by big timber companies to generate quick capital. In part because of the recession, only a small part of that land was carved up for development. But, critics say, there's little in the Council's report to control the fate of these lands in the future. For their part, timber companies say any further restrictions on how they manage their land could actually backfire and increase the threat of sell-offs. Bob Withrow is the Northeast Manager of Forest Resources for Boise Cascade Paper Company, which owns almost 700,000 acres of northern forest. He says the plan doesn't call for big changes in forest management because current practices are working well.

WITHROW: We're very concerned over the health of the forest and, uh, we do our utmost to make sure that that forest remains healthy. The biggest threat to, uh, a large industrial landowner such as ourselves is the uncertainty of how actively we can manage the land for basically, uh, making a profit. We - obviously we don't own the land because we like to. We own it because we are supporting a mill and we also would hope to make some profit from it.

WESTERVELDT: The Northern Forest Lands Council's draft recommendations aren't likely to resolve the ongoing debate over the future of the region. The Council's final report carries no legal authority. Still, many here agree that the Council has at least started a much-needed dialogue over the future of the last great stands of eastern forest. For Living on Earth, I'm Eric Westerveldt in Concord, New Hampshire.



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