by Kevin Miller
Plum Creek Timber Co. officials said they are talking with several potential buyers interested in protecting a rare, 220-acre forest near Elliotsville containing trees older than the state of Maine itself.
Plum Creek has temporarily shelved any plans to harvest in what some people have dubbed the Big Wilson Stream “old-growth” forest. The company has been under pressure from some local residents and environmental groups to abandon plans to harvest on the land later this summer.
Mark Doty, Plum Creek’s regional resource manager, said Thursday that several “conservation buyers” have approached the company as a result of the attention. He declined to provide specifics, saying the negotiations were preliminary.
But Doty said Plum Creek is “certainly willing” to work with the buyers to protect the land.
“We’re going to work pretty hard at it,” Doty said. “We want to work something out.”>/p>
Located in Elliotsville Township south of Greenville, the property is wedged between Big Wilson Stream and a steep ridgeline that carries the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway tracks. That topography has deterred logging on the property, which explains why ecologists found many trees more than 150 years old and some as old as 250 to 300 years.
Two independent organizations — the Maine Natural Areas Program and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences — conducted field surveys of the property in response to public concerns.
Representatives from both organizations said Thursday that while the land does not meet the definition of “old growth,” it is rare in Maine to find such a sizable old forest with so many rich ecological qualities.
“We come across them on 15 to 20 acres,” said Andy Cutko, an ecologist with the Maine Natural Areas Program. “But it’s uncommon to have a patch of 200 acres in the state of Maine.”>/p>
The Maine Natural Areas Program, which is part of the state Department of Conservation, released a report Thursday calling the property “an excellent example of a late successional forest with characteristic old trees, stand continuity and a long history of natural processes.”>/p>
One red spruce tree that was cored to determine its age was found to be 263 years old, while a 2-foot-diameter hemlock was found to be 174 years old. Even larger hemlocks and sugar maples measuring up to 3 feet in diameter were likely 200 to 300 years old, according to the report.
Both the Natural Areas Program and Manomet found some evidence of logging on the land but only in a few locations. The state report estimated that the limited harvesting likely occurred more than a half-century ago.
Andy Whitman, senior scientists at Manomet, said he has measured many large trees and surveyed a lot of older forests over the years. While he says he wouldn’t describe the forest as old growth, Whitman was impressed by the quality of this old forest.
“I haven’t seen many pieces of ground like this,” Whitman said. “It’s rare, … and whenever you get something that’s rare, it is relevant to ask, ‘Do you do something special to protect this place?’”>/p>
Less than 2 percent of Maine’s forests are considered old, and less than 1 percent meet the definition of old-growth forest, according to state figures.
Whitman pointed out that there are no regulations in Maine restricting harvesting of even old-growth trees. Whitman, who is completing his report to Plum Creek, said it is important to balance the environmental benefits of preserving older forests with the economic realities facing many landowners and mills in Maine.
Alan Bray, a native of nearby Monson who used to hike and fish on the property as a young man, said he was pleased to hear that at least one conservation buyer was interested in the property. Bray, who lives in Sangerville, helped lead numerous hikes to raise awareness about the property.
“That’s exactly what I was hoping would happen,” Bray said.
Several conservation groups, including the Appalachian Mountain Club and Roxanne Quimby’s nonprofit foundation known as Elliotsville Plantation, already own large tracts of land in the area. Plum Creek also has included the land in its 430,000-acre conservation proposal accompanying the company’s development plans for the Moosehead Lake region.