Monday, April 25, 2011

A Perspective on the Problems of the Massachusetts Forest Products Industry by Ted Cady

MA Department of Conservation and Recreation
The history of good forest management is based on the fear of running out of wood.  Europe, and Germany especially, have worried about this for hundreds of years and developed the social structures and forest management culture to deal with it.  In this country timber was a free good for a long time.  There were endless stands of wonderful timber that would last forever.  Well, we proved they would not last forever and in the late 1800s and early 1900s a strong movement developed in Massachusetts in response to the perceived loss of forested base for society.  This resulted in the formation of the New England Forestry Foundation, Mass. Forests and Parks Association (Now ELM), the passage of the Town Forest Law in Mass, the creation of the Society for the Protection of Hampshire Forests, the creation of Mass. State Forests and the Dept. of Natural Resources to manage them, and creation of The White Mountains National Forest (which at the time was a mostly burned over wasteland),  among other things.  

Gifford Pinchot, founder of USDA Forest Service
The crisis passed and the movement lost steam, but apparently the goal of "protecting" our local forests has stayed.  Perhaps that made sense when there was cheap, good quality wood in the west and south and transportation was cheap.   Then in the 1938 hurricane we lost an awful lot of our best mature timber.  Now good, mature timber has come back, and as a society we are having a tough time changing from protection to wise use.   As transportation costs continue to rise we probably will see more pressure on our forested resource base.  Hopefully we will again have inspirational leaders come to the fore as we did in the late 1800s  to provide societal leadership in developing the kind of relationship with the land that exists in Northern Europe and Germany.   Years ago it was an uphill battle to protect forests, now it is an uphill battle for wise use of the forest.  But, wise use makes sense and will prevail, but it would be nice if some inspirational leader came along to shortcut the process.

Harvard Forest logging operation, Petersham, MA
Sawmills and loggers staying in business in Massachusetts has been a problem for years, but there must be more too it than the obvious and painful burden of higher costs.  Scandanavia has socialized medicine, strong workers comp laws and so forth and still does pretty well.  Their strict workmen's comp laws resulted in the development of anti-vibration chainsaws to prevent white finger, which were later introduced into this country and replaced Homelite and McCulloch  saws in the woods.  Their concerns about protecting the productivity of their soils resulted in the development of the cut to length system (and they dropped all their tops in the road to form a "paved" road so there would not be any damage to the soil underneath.)  They also developed more effective chainsaw limbing techniques which were both faster and safer.  Their clothing and equipment for loggers was not equalled in this country until fairly recently.   I  do not know if they invented brush saws, but they certainly use them a lot more than we do.  They are thinning their coniferous stands with brush saws then the trees are around  7 - 10 feet high.  We never do this kind of pre-commerical work.  For many decades now they have been cutting their annual growth and have gotten their annual growth about as high as the climate and soils allow.  In addition, in the past they have imported chips from this country (and maybe they still do).  How is it possible for them to do this with their high cost structure?

Wildlife management cut retains coarse woody debris.
Mike Leonard, forester
I suspect the answer is cooperation among the state, educators/researchers and the companies.  Workmen's compensation claims were killing the industry so "they" instituted research programs that significantly reduced the dangers and improved productivity, both at the same time.  Heavy equipement in the woods was doing unacceptable damage, so" their" reserarchers developed logging techniques to solve that problem and increase productivity.  But, these things are a product of the social environment.  The people are closer to the land, so they can feel comfortable about cutting and apparently trust that things are being done correctly overall.  How different it is here.  Do we worry about capturing mortality?  We are a long way from that.  We do not even have agreement on what should be done with our forested landscape.  In Germany a forester has the same kind of respect as a doctor, but that is certainly not the case here.  Loggers and sawmillers are highly skilled workers, but usually are not appreciated as such.  Maybe the underlieing industry problems are based on trying to swim in hostile waters, and that may actually be equal to the higher operating costs as a disincentive to the industry.

Erving State Forest
Some advocate for higher stumpage prices to encourage more forest landowners to become active managers of their woodlands, but that is not the answer.  We had very high stumpage prices in the recent past and it did not create a tidal wave of landowners becoming active managers of their land.  The situation is far more complex than that.  First, since there are very few old growth lots we know that every lot will be cut sooner or later.  Sometimes it is when the land changes hands (either just before or just after), other times it is when the owner needs money.  If the land is in Chap 61, then it may be required.  Most of these situations are not market sensitive, so the wood may come onto the market when stumpage prices are high or low.  Most forest landowners do not own the land to make money, and when they consider a timber sale they  find the the stumpage is not significant relative to their annual income and associated costs.  The money means even less when they have the feeling they might be hurting the land and screwing up things more than they are helping.  Higher stumpage prices do not by themselves overcome this landowner bias.

Most people mow their lawn regularly.  It is the expected thing to do.  The less rural folks take this even more seriously than the rural folks. In more upscale neighborhoods the landowner has an automatic watering system for the lawn, and spends a fair amount on seeds and chemicals to keep it in top condition.  Highly specialized businesses help the landowner keep the lawn up to standard.  If we had that same kind of an ethic for forests, your wishes for well managed forests would come true.  People would understand "weed trees" in the same way as they understand crab grass and dandilions.  No one gets upset about "clearcutting" a field of corn because even urban residents understand it is the best way to manage for corn. So, to me it seems we need to get folks to have the same feeling of care for their forest as they have for their lawn.  When that happens we will be in good shape.

Ted Cady has served with the Rural Community Assistance
Program providing drinking water and wastewater assistance to rural, low-income communities as well as on on several DEP advisory committees, town boards, finance committees, and conservation commissions. Ted's background includes an M.S. in Forestry, consulting work for the state, chief forester of a forest products company, and founding president of a forest conservation group. 


  1. Unlike in New Hampshire, the state government in Massachusetts could give a shit about the fate of our forest and wood products industry. The needs and concerns of Bay State wood producers go unheard in Boston. Nobody from the industry is invited to go along on any foreign "trade missions" to try and expand exports and the folks running EOEA and DCR are former mayors that have never stepped into the woods and don't know a white pine from a red oak. Pathetic.

  2. Interesting article Ted. My comments:

    1. I will disagree that "good mature timber has come back". The majority of private forest land has been subject to at least one liquidation cutting over the last 30-40 years. More information on liquidation cutting here:
    So let's get DCR to stop issuing permits for destructive liquidation cuttings and then we will have "more good mature timber coming back".

    2. I would definitely like to see more cut to length systems (feller-buncher plus forwarder) which leave a smaller footprint on the forest. But we need a good pulp market and we don't have one here. Instead if we can get more biomass markets, we can get more timber harvesters to invest in a mechanized system to produce chipwood from low grade timber - a shear, grapple skidder, and chipper - so we can remove all that junk wood that is choking our forests mostly as a result of prior liquidation cuttings. Check out these great photos of our Biomass Improvement Cuttings -

    3. Scandinavia might do a lot of pre-commercial thinnings, but who pays for it? It would be great to be able to send scores of young people in the woods with brush cutters to do pre-commercial thinnings under the direction of a Consulting Forester, but where's the money going to come from? All timber harvesting improvement cuttings must at least break even or the work doesn't get done.

    4. How about respect for private sector Practicing Foresters? When any unlicensed individual can pretend they do forestry work, this has severely undermined my profession and made my BS degree, 25 years experience, and my Forester's License essentially worthless. We real private sector practicing foresters could use a Union! OK I know we'll never get one, but if you try and practice other professions without a license you are subject to severe fines except if you're a forester. That's discrimination.

    If we want to improve the forestry sector, this is what must be done:
    1. DCR must stop issuing permits for liquidation cuttings.
    2. All of the proposed biomass plants must be built so we can have more markets for low grade timber.
    3. Encourage more landowners to enroll in the Ch.61 and/or the Forest Stewardship Program by continuing to subsidize new plans and make further reforms in Ch.61 to reduce property taxes to zero for those who enroll and repeal the right of first refusal.
    4. Encourage the use of Consulting Foresters for ALL Forest Cutting Plans.
    5. Take private forestry out of DCR and put it into the Dept. of Agriculture where that agency would do a better job of promoting the forestry sector.

    Mike Leonard, Consulting Forester
    North Quabbin Forestry -
    35 Leighton Road
    Petersham, MA 01366

    "We would like to be remembered by what we leave in the forest rather than by what we take."
    - Motto of the Forest Guild