As Pace of Logging Picks up, Some in North Woods are Alarmed
BERLIN, N.H. Logging trucks often outnumber cars on the roads between the Canadian border and this city built around paper, pulp and lumber mills.
But some North Country residents worry the trucks will be gone in a generation, along with the working forest and the mills, because of indiscriminate logging and creeping development.
Others worry about destruction of wildlife habitat and the loss of public access to private timberlands for hunting, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling and blueberry picking.
The catalyst for the debate is T.R. Dillon Logging Inc. of Madison, Maine, which bought 22,500 acres last year in Success, an unincorporated township east of Berlin. Owner Thomas Dillon, who plans to "commercially clearcut" about 3,000 acres a year for three years, also has bought 12,000 acres in other nearby towns in the past two years.
"He's liquidating the land," says Robert Brown, a member of the Berlin Planning Board who often walks Dillon's land in Success. "When this guy Dillon is gone -- and I don't blame him personally -- the land's going to be worth nothing. He's going to subdivide it. We know that, and it's tearing people apart up here."
Dillon's cutting practices in Maine helped inspire a law restricting "liquidation harvesting," defined as removing nearly all the commercially valuable timber from a parcel. The law, which took effect Jan. 1, bars owners from selling such land for subdivision within five years.
"A way of doing business here is you buy land, you cut it and you sell it, and if that's a timber liquidator, that's exactly what I am," Dillon says cheerfully.
But Dillon says he plans to keep the land in Success over the long term and has no plans to subdivide it.
"I'm just doing what I need to do as a businessperson and pay my bills and pay my people," he says. "But say you did want to sell it -- it would be sold as a working forest. To go in and completely butcher it would defeat your purpose, so it would be bad business."
Maine and Vermont have passed laws in the last decade to restrict clearcutting and penalize landowners who "cut and run." But the "Live Free or Die" state places no limits on the amount of timber landowners can cut except in wetlands, buffer strips along lakes and streams and "beauty strips" along town and state roads.
Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, says that's as it should be, because good forestry cannot be legislated.
Dillon agrees. The controversy over his cutting practices "has never really been about forestry," he says. "It's about aesthetics, and there's nothing pretty about a clearcut."
Berlin Mayor Bob Danderson defends Dillon as a critical supplier of pulpwood to the struggling Fraser Paper Inc. paper and pulp mills in Berlin and Gorham, which employ about 600 people. He also says Dillon is cooperating with city leaders on economic development projects, including land for a new federal prison and a proposed state all-terrain-vehicle park around Jericho Lake.
"Dillon is a logger through and through. He's looking at logging not only for now, but for the future of his family, because his son is in the business. I trust that," Danderson says.
Henry Swan, chairman of Wagner Forest Management Ltd. of Lyme, isn't convinced. Swan, whose company manages timberlands for private and institutional investors, doesn't think the state should buy land Dillon has logged.
"I don't like states picking up the carcasses of land that somebody's been able to rape and pillage," says Swan, who also is state chairman of the Nature Conservancy.
But even Dillon's detractors say his practices are the result of economic forces bigger than any one landowner: the accelerating turnover of land ownership, new types of owners and vacation home development.
Over the past two decades, the giant paper companies whose mills lie along rivers in northern New Hampshire and Maine have sold most of their lands to timber investment companies, which have sold to other timber investors or loggers-turned-landowners like Dillon.
Each new owner must cut more heavily to recover his costs and turn a profit. Once all the commercial timber has been logged from an area, it becomes ripe for subdivision or commercial development, permanently removing it from the working forest and fragmenting wildlife habitat.
"Uncertainty of land ownership and the certainty of land turnover on an unprecedented scale have really rocked this state and this region to its roots," says Jym St. Pierre, from the Maine office of the environmental group RESTORE: The North Woods.
The greatest concerns are probably destruction of deer wintering areas and habitat for pine marten, members of the weasel family and a threatened species that relies on forests that aren't too "clean" or clearcut to provide prey, protection and den sites.
Most of the new owners say they plan to keep their land in timber production for a long time. But some, including Plum Creek Timber Co., of Seattle, possibly the nation's largest landowner with 8 million acres in 20 states, also subdivide and sell lakefront property.
Plum Creek owns about 33,000 acres in northern New Hampshire and more than 1 million acres in Maine, where its plan to subdivide property around Moosehead Lake for 1,000 homes and two resorts is controversial -- even though Plum Creek says 97 percent of its land would remain as forest.
Stock says concerns about development in New Hampshire's northernmost county are overblown. Nearly half the land in Coos County is now protected by conservation easements, government ownership or nonprofit groups.
"It's not a Wild West scenario up there, where everything's for sale and it's going to be snatched up and developed," Stock says.
The accelerating changes in land ownership have been paralleled by leaps in the speed and efficiency of logging technology. To stay ahead of the machinery, most foresters now give their loggers "prescriptions" for cutting in large stands, instead of marking individual trees to be harvested.
When Rick Gagne began logging in 1959, teams of horses dragged the timber out of the woods -- and sometimes hauled out men injured by chainsaws or falling trees. Now his son, Pat, sits in the cab of a $450,000 processor, pushing buttons to instruct the machine's arm to grab a tree, cut it, de-limb it and saw it into 8-foot logs -- all in less than a minute.
Charles Niebling, policy director of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, says it's time to consider more regulation. His group and the Timberland Owners are collaborating on a survey to figure out exactly how much timber is being cut, and where.
Niebling also says one thing is clear: What Dillon is doing is not sustainable and it's not good forestry, and will take much of the land out of timber production over the long term.
"Trees grow back in New Hampshire," he says. "But you're not going to have a mature forest resource for another 40, 50, 80, 100 years."
The society tried to buy land from Dillon last year. Niebling says he gave up when Dillon said he not only wanted the price he had paid, but wanted to keep logging and gravel mining rights for four years.
"What would we be buying? We'd be buying a moonscape," Niebling says.
But Niebling also says he doesn't fault Dillon: "I wish that he had a different ethic toward the land, but that's his business. He bought it and we don't have any laws that limit it."
Whether or not more regulation is the answer, state wildlife biologist Will Staats hopes everyone involved will agree to try to preserve a healthy, working forest.
"It's not just a cash cow. It has a long-standing impact on the traditions and values of the community," Staats says. "We're going to be left holding the bag. Our children are going to be left living with these forests for generations.
"We have to foster a land ethic, a stewardship ethic for these lands."
Source: Associated Press