October 16, 2013

Community forests make a comeback in Maine

Cities and towns are harvesting their own wood for town services, a newly recycled concept with a history in Maine going back 200 years.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In Bath, schoolchildren will tap trees in the community forest, learning a practical skill and producing a marketable item: Maine maple syrup.

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The city of Portland has about 500 acres of community forests, including the 30-acre Baxter Woods between Forest and Stevens avenues.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Tom Hoerth, Bath’s city arborist and tree warden, cuts a white birch Tuesday in the Butler Head Preserve to increase the sunlight for the sugar maples. The work is part of the city’s community forest-management program. Schoolchildren learn a practical skill and produce a marketable item, maple syrup, in the forests.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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In Machias, revenue from harvesting trees in the town forest is being funneled into the budget for schools.

In the Farm Cove Community Forest west of Grand Lake Stream, timber is being harvested twice a year and yielding hundreds of thousands of dollars to bolster land conservation and offer residents of Washington County jobs, firewood, and supplies for canoe building and crafts such as wreaths and baskets.

And in Falmouth, the high school is saving $100,000 a year by converting from oil to wood from Maine forests.

All of those activities, and savings, are part of the reinvigorated community forest, a newly recycled concept with a history in Maine going back at least 200 years.

Commonplace in Maine in the 1800s, the community forest is making a comeback because of its potential for profit and practical savings, spectacular aesthetics, hands-on education and a sense of history, many town officials say.

“This (community forest) is an old idea that had kind of fallen by the wayside,” said Jennifer Melville, Yarmouth-based vice president for grants and loans with the Open Space Institute in New York.

In the past 10 years, there has been a fundamental restructuring of the forest products industry, she said, and it has opened a niche for woodlands that are returned to local control and used by residents.

Communities in Maine have resurrected the notion in very real ways, redesigning their town woodlands into what Melville describes as “the resurgent community forest.”

With the help of conservation and land trust organizations dedicated to preservation of spaces that are still open, still relatively pristine and wild, tens of thousands of acres of forestland are being protected and harvested.

Melville said that, most recently, six towns – Jay, Denmark, Holden, Machias, Livermore and Canton – have committed land, time and energy to reviving the community forest model.

In Machias, for example, the community forest is right in town, within walking distance of the school and hospital, Melville said. Wood from the forest will be sold, and “some of the funding will go directly to the schools, and the forest and river will become part of the curriculum,” she said.

COMMUNITIES PROTECTIVE OF FORESTS

In the 1800s and 1900s, most Maine towns had their own forests, for logging, forestry, recreation and public access to remote lands.

But vast tracts of forestland, particularly in northern Maine, later became the property of paper and forestry companies.

Since the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of acres of forest have changed hands, from paper companies to investment owners, said Mark Berry, executive director of the Downeast Land Trust in Grand Lake Stream, which oversees the two largest community forest projects in Maine, totaling 55,000 acres in Washington and Hancock counties.

That massive transfer of ownership was accompanied by pressures from industrial management that led to ever-more-intensive harvesting, according to a 2007 study by the Community Forest Collaborative. It also evoked a visceral response from communities and “sparked an impressive series of conservation initiatives by state and national conservation organizations, land trusts and private agencies,” the study said.

Though much of the forest land remains in private ownership, with absentee property owners, including timber investors and national nonprofits, many communities have decided to take a more active role in guiding the future development of the land.

LOCAL STEWARDSHIP, LOCAL JOBS

Community forests combine values of conservation and forestry, said Berry, and they draw on a broad spectrum of support from the municipalities where they are located and surrounding communities.

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Additional Photos

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John and Barbara Capasso of Falmouth walk with their dog Phoebe in Mayor Baxter Woods in Portland Friday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Topper West, maintenance, grounds and transportation director for Falmouth schools, shows the biomass furnace and conveyer belt filled with wood chips from Maine harvested wood. This is one of two and is located at the elementary school complex.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Mayor Baxter Woods in Portland

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer



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