Local concerns over Mahoosuc Unit logging plan

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A wood harvesting project in the Bull Branch tributary area of the state-owned Mahoosuc Unit in Riley Township is drawing local criticism for potentially impacting old trees in the forest, as well as wildland recreation.

The unit, together with Grafton Notch State Park and conservation easement lands, totals about 45,000 acres.

The Bureau of Parks and Lands (under the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry) is currently preparing for a 2016 winter harvest in the Bull Branch watershed.

Roads and a harvest prescription are being prepared in accordance with a 15-year management plan adopted about five years ago, according to BPL. The plan was established following a process that included input from an advisory committee of people representing interests in the region, as well as from public meetings.

But Bethel residents Laurie Herron and Ken Hotopp have expressed concern about the impact of the logging – Herron in an Oct. 8 Letter to the Editor regarding wildland recreation, and Hoptopp in comments after he and a group of other interested people hiked the area recently.

Herron said the state had “dismissed requests for conservation of the area for wildland recreation, and some preliminary roadwork has begun.”

Some of Hotopp’s concerns focused on old trees. He said there are hundreds of large, old trees on a hillside above the Bull Branch on state land.

“The trunk sizes of many of these canopy trees – sugar maple, red spruce, yellow birch, American beech, and eastern hemlock – are well over two feet in diameter, and a few are over three feet in diameter,” said Hotopp, who is a conservation biologist.

He said the size suggests they are in the range of 150-250 years old, but some may be older.

“We will not know more about the ages of these trees until some increment borings are made – a narrow tube of wood is removed, from which tree rings can be counted and measured,” he said. “However, we can already approximate the age of these trees because of what we know about another nearby similar stand on private land.”

Hotopp said other features of the area also suggest “a long period without human disturbance. The stands in which these trees occur are uneven-aged, have full-sized snags and logs, canopy trees have storm-damaged crowns, and there are no old cut stumps. These types of stands are the closest thing we have to the appearance and function of the original (pre-European contact) forest. Such “late-successional” forests are found on less than 1 percent of Maine lands.”

He said that other very old stands in the area “have at least a little history of long-ago logging.” But it won’t be known if the stands were ever partly cut, he said, until a detailed assessment is made by experts.

“The large trees are spread over at least 25 acres, and the size of this area should be expected to increase as we explore more,” said Hotopp. “These trees are not within an ecoreserve or otherwise protected area.”

State response

In response to concerns like Herron’s, John Bott, director of special projects/communications for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, wrote the following:

Understanding BPL’s Management in the Bull Branch area of the Mahoosuc Unit

Multiple Use and the Importance of Timber Harvests on Public Reserved Lands:

The Bureau of Parks and Lands is in the process of preparing for a planned 2016 winter harvest in the Bull Branch watershed of the Mahoosuc Unit in Western Maine.

Local resident Harriet Langley with an old growth tree that is the subject of concern among some.
Local resident Harriet Langley with an old growth tree that is the subject of concern among some.
A map of the Mahoosuc Unit, provided by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation.
A map of the Mahoosuc Unit, provided by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation.

As part of the process, some of the existing roads are being readied in advance, and a specific harvest prescription is being prepared, consistent with the guidelines spelled out in the 15-year Management Plan for this area, adopted on January 4, 2011. The Bureau is aware of public concerns about this, specifically related to the recreational experience and scenic values. The Bureau has a long history of managing Public Reserved Lands, including the Mahoosuc Unit, for multiple uses, including recreation, wildlife and forestry, and in so doing, accommodating a variety of concerns as it undertakes timber harvests.
The Western Mountains area is an area with both high recreation and scenic values, and operable, high timber values. In fact, the Mahoosuc Unit contains some of the most productive timber land in the state. Management of productive timber resources is critical to maintaining the public reserved lands system; the good timber growing areas open to timber management support the Bureau management of wildlife, recreation and special protection resources, including areas where there is no harvesting, such as the ecological reserve adjacent to the planned harvest area on the Mahoosuc Unit.
The Role of Management Roads for Timber Harvest and Recreation: One of the reasons there is a strong public reaction to the Bureau’s recent activities to re-open the road system in the Bull Branch area is that since the last harvests in this area, in the 1990’s, the roads have been used as walking trails. The Bull Branch road system is currently referred to as the Bull Branch trail system due to the use of the road in the intervening years since its last use for timber management. The Bureau typically has a 20 year reentry schedule for timber harvests. As the vegetation grows back in the roads, many may not realize this is really a reverting road system that will be used again in the future. This is due to good management, not abandonment of purpose. At the close of a harvest, the roads are purposely retired, with culverts removed and drainages stabilized in order to avoid erosion of the road base in this steep terrain. This is a frequent strategy, given the Bureau’s long rotations between harvests.
Timing and Nature of Planned Management Activities: The planned harvest is expected to take place over two to three winters. Roads will be gradually re-opened to a similar standard as when last used in the 1990’s. The current road being opened for the 2016 winter harvest is actually a side road of the Bull Branch road. Next summer and fall, work is planned to re-open a portion of the Bull Branch Road for a winter 2017 harvest. Because of the high public use in this area, the area will continue to be available for use by the public when logging isn’t active, and optimally, all harvests will occur in the winter, although a portion of the area may be harvested in the summer. When harvesting is complete culverts and bridges will be removed and the roads will be water barred and seeded.
The harvest will be conducted in accordance with a specific prescription developed following general guidelines spelled out in 15-year Management Plan (see below). In the Bull Branch area, the harvest is expected to remove low quality and some mature timber, leaving a well-stocked stand for the future. Approximately one-third of the stand volume will be removed, using single tree and group selection silviculture; some areas will be untouched, and not all large trees will be removed.
Public Process and Guidelines for Management of the Mahoosuc Unit: How the Bureau balances the diverse recreational, wildlife and timber values on a given property, and in a given location of that property, is spelled out in its general management plans for public reserved lands. Plans are developed on a regional basis with a robust public process. The Management Plan for this area was completed in 2011. It is available online at http://www.maine.gov/dacf/parks/get_involved/planning_and_acquisition/management_plans/western_mountains.html
Development of this Plan included two consultation meetings with an advisory committee composed of individuals knowledgeable about the area and representing the full range of user groups and interests; a special public focus meeting related to hiking trails in the Mahoosuc Unit; and three general public meetings to gather additional public input.
The result of that process is a two-layered system of guidance, defined in the Plan:
· A Vision Statement that acknowledges that about half of the property is devoted primarily to protection of ecological features (including a designated ecological reserve), wildlife habitat and backcountry recreation. The other half allows timber harvest subject to visual considerations. Related to timber harvests, the vision statement includes the following:
Management of the timberlands demonstrates exemplary multiple use and sustainable forest management producing high quality sawlogs and retaining a late successional character. Because of the exemplary management, these lands are an important component of the local economy contributing a continued source of jobs and revenue from both timber operations, and as tourism and recreation destination.
· Management Allocations: Allocations are defined management zones that specify what the primary and secondary objectives will be for management. These include special protection, backcountry recreation, wildlife, remote recreation, visual protection, developed recreation, and timber management. Generally, there is no harvest allowed in the special protection and backcountry recreation allocations; timber harvests are allowed as a secondary use in wildlife, and remote recreation, areas, subject to protection of the dominant allocation values and possible visual concerns; and in a timber dominant allocation, harvests are subject to only to visual concerns where specifically noted.
In the Bull Branch watershed, the following allocations have been applied
Bull Branch Stream Wildlife and Visual Protection : There is a 330-foot wildlife buffer along each side of the Bull Branch, with an additional Visual Class I consideration in this area as well. Visual Class I, covering areas viewed in the foreground, means management will maintain the appearance of an essentially undisturbed forest.
Developed Recreation: There are no designated recreational amenities or trails in the timber harvest areas of the Bull Branch watershed. The Wright Trail parking area is at the edge of it and will be protected with a Visual Class I buffer as is standard procedure for any recreational trails or other defined areas (also including the Frenchman’s Hole area).
Timber dominant areas: Beyond the 330-foot wildlife and visual protection zone, timber harvest is allowed subject to Visual considerations. Most if not all of the area planned for harvest will be subject to a Visual Class II treatment given its visibility from the Appalachian Trail, the Grafton Loop Trail, the Wright Trail, and the Sunday River Road and Bull Branch Road leading to the property. Visual Class II areas, areas seen from a distance, are managed to avoid the appearance of any obvious alteration to the landscape.
In short, as the Bureau’s foresters develop a detailed prescription for the Bull Branch area, they will be guided by the Vision and Allocations in the plan, and should be appropriately sensitive to the concerns being expressed about the proposed harvest area.

 

Regarding Hotopp’s concerns about old growth trees:

Additional concerns have been raised about potential harvest of large or old trees in the Bull Branch drainage, with assertions that there are trees of an age of 150 years or more in stands that are assumed to have grown for a long period without human disturbance, citing as evidence a lack of old cut stumps.

A recent timber inventory conducted by the Bureau  did not reveal any old growth stands in the area defined for harvest. The Bureau’s proposed harvest area is adjacent to the 10,000 acre ecological reserve designated and protected since 2001.  Since we have not yet marked the boundary of the ecological reserve on the ground, it may be that some of the older trees noted by concerned citizens are actually in the reserve.

The Bureau defines “old growth stands” as areas of at least 5 acres that contain “a majority of the main crown canopy in long-lived or late successional trees usually 150 to 200 years old or older, often with large snags, large downed woody material, and multiple age classes, in which evidence of human-caused disturbance is absent or old and faint.”  During the development of the management plan in 2010, the Bureau followed its normal protocol of working with the Maine Natural Areas Program (MNAP) to identify large, exemplary stands of trees deserving of special treatment beyond those in the ecological reserve, including those with a significant component of old growth forest. Those identified were allocated to Special Protection in the Plan.  No such area was identified in the proposed harvest area, which was therefore allocated as timber dominant.

However, the allocation is not a prescription, and in developing prescriptions, additional policies do come into play with regard to old growth trees. The Bureau recognizes that the MNAP inventory may not identify individuals or groups of very old trees making up a minority component of a stand, which the Bureau calls “old growth component.” When a detailed timber inventory is conducted prior to developing a harvest prescription, any old growth component will be noted.  Generally, the policy for managing old growth component is to retain the old growth component in the same proportion as prior to the harvest; so that if a harvest removes one-third of the timber volume, it would also only remove one third of the old growth component.

The detailed timber inventory conducted two years ago for the harvest area west of the Bull Branch shows the vast majority of trees are in the 6” to 16” diameter  range, but it does show there are some older trees that may be old growth component.  This will be determined as part of the prescription, in consultation with MNAP.  This is consistent with the harvest history.  The area was acquired in 1977 and the previous landowner harvested in the area in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Evidence of this is present in notches on older hardwood trees, a technique to determine if the tree was of veneer quality. Notched trees left unharvested were not of the quality desired, but continued to grow.  Older trees that are present may have been uneconomic to harvest 50 years ago, when markets for hardwood were limited except for veneer quality logs.  Many of these older trees will also be uneconomic to harvest today, and will be left as wildlife or “Legacy” trees.

Finally, for context, ecological reserves have been established on 93,799 acres across the Public Reserved Lands landbase.  Most of this is forested, approximately 79,000 acres.  In the Western Mountain and high peaks area, these include, in addition to the 10,000 acres in the Mahoosucs, another 10,540 acres at Bigelow Preserve, and 5,186 acres on Mount Abraham.  Across all Bureau ecological reserves, there is an average of 14 large trees per acre.  The mean age of canopy trees on the Mahoosucs Ecological Reserve is 103 years ( data from Maine Natural Areas published reports).

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