by Susan Sharon
Maine Public Radio news story
A few weeks ago we brought you the story of a unique forest not far from the town of Monson in Elliottsville Township. Big Wilson Stream Forest is owned by the Plum Creek Timber Company and has been slated for cutting. Some environmentalists who’ve visited the 220 acre site believe it may be rare “old growth” forest, so named because of its age and the kinds of trees and plants found there. Now, at Plum Creek’s request, a pair of ecologists has done separate assessments of the parcel, and they’re making their findings public.
As a forest ecologist with the Manomet Center for Conservation Science, Andy Whitman has been wandering the woods of northern Maine for more than a decade turning over rocks, examining lichens and other “old growth” forest indicators and running his fingers over all different kinds of bark. Whitman explains the basics of an “old tree,” “And basically for all species when the bark stops looking like what you’re used to it looking like – that’s an often an indicator of a really old tree. And by really old I mean you know two or three hundred years old.” Whitman is examining a giant yellow birch, about 2.5 feet in diameter. He says it wouldn’t surprise him if this tree, found in the parcel owned by Plum Creek, is as much as 300 years old. Whitman says what makes this forest unusual is that you don’t just find a few big old trees, you find a whole bunch of them. Whitman counts, “10, 11, 12, 13 – there’s two nice really good pines over there. And to stand in one point and count up 13 big trees, and I’m talking trees somewhere around 16 inches in diameter or bigger – that’s not a common experience. And that’s the subtlety of old forest in Maine.”
“Old growth” forest is so rare that Whitman says it makes up less than a tenth of one percent of the Maine woods. Whitman defines true old growth forest as a place that has only been lightly touched by the hand of man. But notice that Whitman just referred to old forest, not “old growth.” There’s a fine difference. But old – or late successional forest – is what he believes Plum Creek has here: “There may be some tiny pockets of old growth in here but there’s not what I would call an old growth forest in here. There are very likely old growth trees – trees that pre-date settlement of the area, but if I look hard at any part of this forest I can almost always find old cut stumps. Frequently enough that it’s not a matter of a very light hand of man impact, but some significant removals in the past.”
Like Whitman, Andy Cutko of the Maine Natural Areas Program has made a similar determination of the site. And like Whitman, Cutko is also an ecologist. Cutko says, “In my experience traveling around the state, there really aren’t a whole lot of sites like this that have the combination of old trees and the presence of late successional indicators species and large downed logs and standing snags. We run into occasional places where we have those in five or ten acre patches, but to have 200 acres of it all in one spot is quite unusual.” Cutko took cores from two red spruce trees and a medium size hemlock and found them to be 263, 195 and 174 years old respectively. Cutko says he also saw some scattered evidence of prior logging, which is why he stops short of calling the Big Wilson Stream forest “old growth,” but both scientists say there is plenty to be cherished at the site, which contains downed logs in various stages of decay, several varieties of mushrooms, lichens and mosses. It gives one the impression of being more lush and diverse than a working forest. Andy Whitman puts it this way: “There’s a unique quality here that is non ecological, it’s a human experience. People call it a spiritual thing. If you have 50 blocks like this and you were to clear cut this one and not touch the other 49 it would probably not be that big of a deal, but the problem is we have no plan to conserve the values of those other 49 stands.”
Without a plan for conserving or managing old forests in Maine, Whitman says it’s difficult to advise Plum Creek or any other large landowners what to do with it. Even forest certification programs don’t prohibit the cutting of old trees. But cutting this site may not ever have to be considered says Plum Creek’s community affairs manager Mark Doty. Doty explains, “We’ve listened to the concern that folks have expressed, and we’ve been approached by several potential conservation buyers who have interest in acquiring this site. And Plum Creek is willing to work with conservation buyers to conserve this late successional forest.” Doty declined to name the interested buyers, but he says negotiations are only in the early process. If the sale is unsuccessful, Doty does not rule out possible cutting of the site. But he says it could be accomplished in a way that’s respectful of the forest’s unique ecological values.
Whatever Plum Creek does, environmental groups will be watching. Cathy Johnson is the North Woods Project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. She believes that “Based on the information we see now, we definitely think this forest should be conserved in its current condition and not harvested for timber.” The other reason Johnson and others are paying close attention is that if Plum Creek wins approval from the Land Use Regulation Commission for its Moosehead Lake development project, the Big Wilson Stream forest is slated for protection under a proposed 400,000 acre conservation easement. While the easement prohibits many types of development, it does not prevent timber harvesting. But environmentalists will be watching for signs about how Plum Creek plans to operate under the easement’s terms, especially as it relates to rare and significant old forest.