Giant forest companies help small landowners harvest their trees

Aunt Alice and Uncle George, with their little five-acre retirement place in the woods, may have something that the giant US forest-products companies want - trees.

Reason: Despite the tens of millions of acres of timberland they own, Boise Cascade, Georgia-Pacific, and most of the other companies in the industry are far from self-sufficient in wood. Some, in fact, are as little as 25 percent self-sufficient, according to a recent study published in the Forest Products Journal.

That might not matter so much at the moment, with the domestic housing industry in a severe slump and many sawmills either closed or reduced to single shifts. But the demand for paper products remains high, and in the years to come more and more chemicals are likely to come from a wood base instead of petroleum. The US Forest Service projects the demand for wood to double in the next 50 years.

To help meet that projection, forest-products companies are turning increasingly to owners of small, private woodlots in many states, especially in the East. (Those whose timber holdings are mainly in the Far West have been slower to adopt the trend.) An estimated 283 million acres - or 60 percent of US commercial forest land - is in private ownership.

Claims the American Forest Institute (AFI): ''These privately owned lands hold the key to a long-range increase in forest productivity. Without the contribution of individual landowners through planting and harvesting more trees on their property, we could suffer a serious gap between supply and demand.''

Lester A. DeCoster, New England regional manager for AFI, says: ''The industry can't afford to buy these fragmented private lots, for the most part. It will have to get wood from them by encouraging the owners to hold the land and use foresters' advice'' on proper management.

Good management has become increasingly important in view of such assaults on timberland as gypsy moth and budworm infestations and indiscriminate cutting of trees for firewood. Meanwhile, harvesting federally owned lands for timber has become costly and unreliable in recent years.

In New England, claims one independent forester whose services are aimed at private landowners, ''We're lucky if 1 percent of the land is performing at financially viable rates.''

Most landowner programs run by forest products companies work this way: The company provides a staff of professional foresters to consult with property owners - who may not fully understand the relative commercial values of trees - on their wishes for use of the land. Where land would benefit from thinning of tree stands, the foresters suggest a harvesting program conducted by a reputable logger under their supervision and at an agreed-upon price. That price, called a ''stumpage charge,'' is paid to the landowner. The services of the foresters normally are free, but the sponsoring company may ask for first-refusal rights on some of the harvested wood.

In Maine alone, four major forest-products firms have landowner-assistance programs: Boise Cascade, Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, and Scott Paper through its S. D. Warren Division.

International Paper's program, in fact, covers 16 states (and 2,900 landowners) despite the company's 7.1 million acres of timber holdings, largest in the industry.

Scott Paper, with 1.8 million acres of timber holdings, maintains a closely knit program with 800 landowners in Maine and New Hampshire, according to assistant woodlands manager Dave Clement of the Warren division. Mr. Clement says the program yielded 25,000 to 35,000 cords of pulpwood in the 1981 operating year recently ended.

Warren usually limits its involvement with owners of fewer than 10 acres, Clement says. But since most of the participation in its program is through word-of-mouth, abutting property owners often ask to be included, and acreage in a given location can quickly increase to worthwhile proportions. The company maintains a staff of four full-time foresters plus a technician to work with participating landowners in making the most efficient use of their trees.

''Our selfish interest is, we're getting good management on the land closest to our mill,'' says Clements. ''It's our cheapest source of wood. You never own enough land to be self-sufficient.''

Forestry sources say the landowner-assistance programs are doubly useful because state-run forestry services are falling victim to budget cuts. Maine, for example, has eliminated four state forester positions over the past year. Moreover, by law many states' foresters are allowed to spend only two days a year advising any landowner.

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