Old Northeast Forests Face Deep-Rooted Problems

Conservation alliance seeks to ease threats to the largest forest east of the Mississippi while spurring economic growth.

Sherry Belknap's logging roots are deeply dug in Vermont's rich, rocky forestland. A fifth generation timberman, his grandfather herded one of the largest log drives ever down the Connecticut River.

He also built the white clapboard house here where Mr. Belknap was born, raised, and still lives along the winding Nulhegan River in northern Vermont.

A logger at heart, Mr. Belknap now finds himself all "torn up."

The forest lands his family has thrived on for generations are threatened. Logging companies, eager to feed ravenous pulp mills, have clear-cut vast expanses. Developers are buying up land, stripping it, and putting up summer homes. The polluted air wafting up from Southern and Midwestern states continues to shower acidic rains, robbing some trees of their nutrients and strength to sustain them in the harsh, cold winters.

"There's such an economic strain on the forests, we just need to be a little more gentle," says Mr. Belknap. "We can't just keep knocking it down, knocking it down, and knocking it down to the point that the quality of timber just isn't what is used to be."

While the survival of the old growth forests of the Northwest has generated controversial headlines for years, the battle to protect the forests in the Northeast is now quietly gathering momentum.

The big green

From western New York to the tip of Maine, 26 million acres of timberland make up the Northern Forest - the largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi. More than 35 conservation groups have banded together since 1990 to protect the most wild and vulnerable areas in the region as well as foster sustainable logging practices and economic development.

"We have to face up to the reality of change in the area," says Andrea Stander of the Northern Forest Alliance, the Montpelier, Vt.-based coordinating group.

The groups hope to accomplish their goals cooperatively. Nonetheless, their efforts have generated resentment, touching off a sharp debate about where the line is drawn between individual property rights and the public's stewardship responsibilities. Eighty-five percent of the 26 million-acre forest is privately owned.

"There's no denying a real struggle's under way for control of the Northern Forest as we go into the next century," says William Vail, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, a trade group that represents logging companies and private timberland owners. "My position is that private ownership has provided good stewardship in the past, and it will continue to do so well into the future."

The alliance recognizes that working with private owners is central to its success. It has begun to hold town meetings with the people who live and work in each of the five states the forest straddles. It has also proposed legislation from banning the aerial spraying of herbicides, to limiting the number of acres that can be clear-cut, to protecting up to 4 million acres in Maine from development. It has appealed to the federal government. This fall, Congress will again consider the Northern Forests Stewardship Act.

Introduced in 1995, the bill is designed to strike a balance between individual property rights and public conservation efforts. As a result, it has strong bipartisan support from New England's congressional delegation.

The bill would establish a "voluntary partnership" between the state and federal governments for protecting the most vulnerable areas of the forest. It requires the people in each state identify them, and stipulates that any purchases would be restricted to "willing sellers." It also directs federal funds be used to help "diversity and strengthen" local, forest-dependent economies. Supporters believe the chances are good it will win approval this fall.

But on the state level, many of the alliance's battles have been much more controversial. Two years ago, Vermont began to consider banning logging companies from aerial spraying of herbicides. Belknap, to his surprise, found himself leading the charge against the logging companies.

"People I've known and worked with for years would look at me and say, 'We thought you were one of us, we thought you were a logger," he says, raising his fist. "I am, but I also cherish this forest."

At the same time, the Vermont legislature considered limiting clear-cuts to 40 acres unless approval is given by the state. That raised so many hackles, loggers circled the state capital with their trucks to protest. They pointed out that the Northern Forest is bigger now than it was at the turn of the century, when much of the land was cleared for farming.

Nonetheless, both measures passed this year. That legislation has left some lingering bitterness in Vermont and some wariness across the river in neighboring New Hampshire, where similar proposals have been talked about.

"We really don't need nature huggers up here," says Ted Burns, who watched the debate from his truck stop just across the Nulhegan River in Stratford, N.H. "I love the environment as much as anybody is ever going to, but I don't need the government, especially, coming in here and telling us what we can and can't do with land we've lived on all our lives."

Mr. Burns contends that most of the people who get upset about clear-cuts "haven't got a clue what it means. Three years after the land is just completely devastated, I mean cleaned right off, looks like somebody's lawn, three years later, wildlife is abundant in that area." Six years later, he contends, there's no sign of the clear-cut. Although, he admits it takes decades for the high quality oaks and maples to reach their full maturity.

In Maine, which reflects New Hampshire's stark, independent spirit, a referendum to limit clear-cuts won enough support to be voted on a second time this November. The proposal would drastically reduce the amount of acreage that can be clear-cut annually from 250 acres to 75 acres. While extremes on the left and right oppose the bill, it has the support of most of the large timber companies and conservation groups in the state.

"That shows there's a recognition the forest is critical to everyone both economically and ecologically," says Catherine Johnson, Northwoods Project Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a member of the Alliance. "But there is still significant disagreement about the best way to preserve them - from what constitutes proper logging practices to how much development to permit."

That disagreement extends to the best way to promote economic development. In Vermont, the forest used to be harvested primarily for the high quality hardwoods. Some of that still exists, but much of the focus has shifted to producing cheap timber for paper mills across the border in Canada.

"Thirty percent of Vermont's harvest of trees is exported out of state without any processing done here in the state," says Jim Shallow of the Vermont Audubon Society, also an alliance member. "We're loosing the opportunity to have between 300 and 600 jobs."

Sustainable debate

Mr. Shallow says economic development in the Northern Forest should focus on increasing recreational activities and promoting cottage industries that can use high quality woods that are "sustainably" logged - meaning that only mature trees are selectively cut, leaving the rest to reach their full growth potential, and the forest intact. But he and others acknowledge it will take many, years before that goal can be reached.

"So much damage has already been done," says logger Belknap of Vermont's Nulhegan Basin. "There's going to be that 50 to 80 year window when they've got to be very prudent in the way they treat the forests if it's going to rebound the way it should."

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