Public Lands Forester Steve Swatling, at a log landing in the Bigelow Preserve (Photo by C. Parrish)
Public Lands Forester Steve Swatling, at a log landing in the Bigelow

Preserve (Photo by C. Parrish)
Last year, state conservation officials who oversee Maine's Public Lands promised they would not increase timber harvesting on public lands until they provided legislators with the science to back it up. Instead, data from the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) Timber Database indicate that they logged an estimated 25,000 more cords than they said they would.

That's about 2,000 tractor trailers full of logs and chips that would still be trees standing in the public's forest.

For years BPL has gone about doing its job of managing forests, harvesting timber and balancing those efforts against their responsibility to provide ecological values and recreation opportunities. Un-like industrial forests, like those owned by Irving, the bureau's primary mission is not profits, but to practice "exemplary forestry" that can be used as an example for private landowners of how to manage different types of forests for multiple uses and still make money.

And the timber harvested from the public forests does make money. It supports the bureau without any help from Maine taxpayers. By current law, the money cannot be siphoned off for other uses.

Laws, of course, can be changed.

Two and a half years ago, an internal plan was developed at the Maine Forest Service (MFS) to increase the timber taken off public lands, with the end goal of siphoning that money for pet projects. MFS had no jurisdiction over public lands, but there was considerable interest in the dollar value of those trees.

BPL was already increasing timber harvests. In their March 1, 2013, annual report, I noticed they had increased their Annual Allowable Cut from 115,000 to 141,000 cords. I asked them why. They responded that the increased growth of trees indicated by the 2011 forest inventory justified the increase, and that the advance of the spruce budworm south from Canada also meant they needed to cut more balsam fir before the pests arrived and killed them.

However, the bureau didn't know that the timber harvest numbers were about to go even above that 141,000 cords until mid-April 2013 when they were asked by Doug Denico, the director of MFS, how much more timber they could cut without risking losing the sustainable forestry seal of approval. Sustainability certification relies on a process that warrants scrutiny about how sustainable it really is, but, for now, it's the standard mark of approval and the adminstration didn't want to risk losing it.

BPL had a week to respond.
Since I used to work for what is now known as the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and still had contacts there, I contacted two career staffers, including licensed BPL forester Steve Swatling, and asked if they could tell me more about why the harvest was being increased to 141,000. At that time, I had no knowledge about further increases.

They didn't even know about the 141,000 cord timber target. And none of us knew that by April 2013 it was official policy inside the bureau that the cut would increase further - up to 180,000 cords two years later, to remain there for 20 years. Bureau field staff in the Western Region were informed of the increase in July, according to Swatling, who is a personal friend of mine. Swatling, a 25-year veteran of BPL, is the manager of the Bigelow Preserve, a mountainous public reserve that is valued for high-quality, high-value timber and for high-quality recreation on its craggy mountains.

The public certainly hadn't been informed. Neither had the Legislature. The conservation community also didn't know. When I contacted Cathy Johnson, the forest issue specialist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, for comment she was surprised to hear about the 180,000 cord target. As a result of the public reporting and what followed, the Agricultural, Conservation and Forestry legislative committee asked the BPL on April 1, 2014, to stop the increased harvest and report back this January with the science to justify it.

Will Harris, the then-director of BPL, with assistant Tom Morrison at his side, agreed to tell his foresters not to cut more than 141,000 cords for the year.

It appears they did, anyway. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, the BPL Timber Database indicates they cut 177,545 cords of wood.

According to Swatling, but unconfirmed by BPL's Chief of Silviculture by press time, the bureau subtracts out 60 percent of the treetops and branches (called biomass in the database) that are not typically counted when calculating the Annual Allowable Cut.

Using Swatling's number, that leaves 166,785 cords of timber cut off the state's public forests in FY 2104, or 25,000 cords above the line that Harris said they would not cross.

Swatling believes the number may go even higher, due to miscalculations in acreage.

Tom Morrison, now acting director of BPL, did not respond to several requests for information or clarification before press time.