The Maine forests have improved, but new threats continue to loom.
Credit: George Danby / BDN

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David Vail is a professor of economics emeritus at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. Jym St. Pierre is Maine Director of RESTORE: The North Woods.

Two decades ago, Henry David Thoreau’s iconic Maine woods were in trouble. Are Maine’s forests and forest economy on a more sustainable path today? This look-back is our first take at an answer. 

In a 2001 opinion column published in The Times Record, we highlighted three major threats: Massive land sales and speculative real estate development, unsustainable timber harvesting, and loss of backcountry wildness

A landscape scale overview shows progress toward sustainability, but also reveals deficiencies and emerging challenges. 

After the sale of millions of acres, forest industry land divestment is largely complete, though today the share of foreign-owned land in Maine’s northern counties is the highest in the U.S. Worries of widespread ownership fragmentation into real estate subdivisions have not generally materialized, and several new owners, such as timber investment management organizations representing insurance companies and university endowments, are so far following “patient capital” strategies, managing for the longer term. 

Conversion of working forest to house lots has been modest, averaging less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 10.4 million-acre Unorganized Territory yearly.  Plum Creek’s controversial plan for sprawling development across thousands of acres in the Moosehead region was sidelined by the Great Recession. But we need to keep an eye on development’s cumulative impact and the burst of pandemic-induced second home sales. And problematic schemes are on the horizon, such as the billion-dollar giant flagpole theme park proposed for Washington County woodlands.

A forestland conversion issue not anticipated in 2001 is expanding wind and solar power generation and new transmission corridors. These projects contribute to Maine’s climate strategy and rural economy, but also disrupt forest ecosystems. Similarly, proposed mineral mines would have contradictory ecological impacts. 

In the late 20th century, large areas were clearcut in response to a massive spruce budworm outbreak. In 2019, less than 7 percent of logged acres were clearcut, commercially important spruce-fir stands are rebounding and 10 million acres have been green certified. However, these optimistic indicators contrast with continued over-cutting of hardwoods in northern counties and logging in excess of timber growth on ownerships self-certified by industry. Moreover, investments in timber stand improvement are limited to a few thousand acres yearly. 

By the early 2000s, many of Maine’s pulp and paper mills and biomass electricity plants were shuttered, slashing demand for pulpwood and low-grade fiber. Going forward, forest management and forest industry vitality will hinge on the extent of diversification into products such as cross-laminated timber, cellulose insulation and nano-fiber materials. 

Conservation and protection of wilderness qualities

There has been progress on forest conservation. Working forest easements give more than 2 million acres some protection, public and private ecological reserves have expanded, the Katahdin Lake lands are now within Baxter State Park, new non-motorized recreation trails are available, and some landowners participate in carbon credit programs. Especially notable is the establishment of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Forest resilience requires further conservation efforts, in view of expanding invasive species, habitat loss with land fragmentation and conversion, preserving the intrinsic value of wildlands, and addressing the rapidly intensifying climate crisis. Indeed, the forest’s most serious long-term vulnerabilities stem from climate change, for example pest and disease damage, wildfires and the spruce-fir forest’s northward “migration.” But we have also seen climate-linked opportunities, including enhanced carbon sequestration, wind and solar power, and innovative construction materials.

Do these trends and initiatives add up to a more resilient and sustainable forest? In 2001, we proposed five “opportunities for innovation”: expansion of public forestland ownership, effective incentives to limit harvesting to sustainable levels, stronger authority to enforce zoning principles, increased acreage dedicated to ecological reserves and wilderness areas, and economic diversification to revitalize rural communities.

There has been progress in all five areas. But ensuring the future health of Thoreau’s Maine woods requires building on recent successes and striking a better, more far-sighted balance among competing values.