Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

By Andy McEvoy

Setting long-term goals can be difficult. Setting goals for the next 100 years or more might seem impossible, or at least impractical. Yet good forestry requires such foresight and intention.

Forests and woodlots are valued for wildlife habitat, material for wood products and heating fuel, aesthetics, recreational spaces, carbon sinks and more. While the dollar value of wood products and heating fuel can be measured directly, many other values cannot. Nonetheless, when planning a harvest, forest owners must decide how they value future growth and regeneration, recreation, long-term wildlife habitat, and other less quantifiable values.

To achieve these values, human-, animal- and machine-powered systems may be used. Each has its own costs and benefits, and no single method can guarantee a healthy forest. Good forestry methods must match the needs of the forest with those of the landowner.

MOFGA and its Low Impact Forestry (LIF) Committee recognize multiple approaches, and over the past three years have sought the best ways to harvest wood in MOFGA’s woodlot. Most recently, in February 2011, 15 LIF Committee members harvested for eight days, with the number of workers varying day to day.

As before, we combined draft animals and mechanical equipment to maximize the efficiencies of both. During most of the harvest, two single horses twitched logs to semi-permanent brows, or loading areas. From there the wood was loaded onto a scoot, by hand or with a mechanical forwarder, and then was hauled by a team from the woodlot to the yard, where a tractor-powered forwarder sorted and stacked the logs.

Using single horses in the woods minimized the number and surface area of roads and skid trails; enabled navigating tight corners and weaving through trees; and reduced fossil fuel use. When using horses made the job more difficult, we used machinery. Some pine was so large that single horses struggled to move it, and several trees got caught in other trees during felling. In such cases, a machine with a winch and grapple was invaluable. Loading a scoot by hand can be very difficult when logs are marginal and not particularly straight. The forwarder in the woods hastened that process. Limiting machines to the main haul roads and the yard reduced the amount of travel and the amount of damage done to the woods.

We did not remove any pulpwood this year, unlike in previous years. Removing only sawlogs might seem incongruous since, as in many lots in Maine, MOFGA’s forest is the result of abandoned pasture that grew into a stand of large, multi-stemmed pine, little of which can be milled. Our decision not to remove pulp reflected the silvicultural goal of the harvest and the use of animals. In this “Timber Stand Improvement” (TSI) harvest, our goal was not to maximize immediate economic yield, but to maximize forest health and improve the economic and ecological value of the forest as it matures. We did this by removing many low-grade trees, opening the canopy so that remaining and new trees receive more sunlight and nutrients and grow faster. Leaving the healthiest specimens makes the future forest robust and more valuable.

The ultimate goal of a TSI harvest is to produce a forest that is economically and ecologically viable many decades from now. In most traditional harvests, pulpwood is the main product, because most Maine woodlots have many more trees suitable for pulp than for logs. Profits from selling pulpwood can help offset harvest costs. However, because the market value of pine pulp was lower than our harvesting costs, we harvested only logs and left pulpwood scattered in the woods to decompose and return nutrients to the soil. Also, horses move slower than machinery, and harvesting all the pulp would have required more horses or more time.

A mechanical crew could have conducted this particular harvest faster and with greater immediate economic return to MOFGA, without sacrificing ecological value, and while still meeting the needs of the forest management plan. Indeed, MOFGA’s woodlot is not one that most horse loggers would bid on because of the logistics of moving the wood with animals and the economics of using mechanical systems. Many similar woodlots undergo a “biomass harvest” using a feller-buncher, grapple skidder, delimber, chipper and the necessary trucks to remove the pulp, sawlogs and slash of any tree the forester painted. Sawlogs are sold to lumber mills, pulp to pulp mills, and chipped tops to biomass burning energy facilities.

With nearly 3 feet of snow in the woods, a skidder or feller-buncher may have been able to navigate without much rutting, or soil disturbance, but the haul road likely would have been left in worse shape. Also, a mechanical operation would have required wider (and possibly more) roads to accommodate skidders or feller-bunchers and to eliminate tight corners that our scoots easily navigated. Our method exchanged some economic yield for the labor of 15 people instead of machinery and a handful of laborers.

All harvesting methods have their strengths and weaknesses. MOFGA paid to minimize residual damage from logging, to promote future tree growth as much as possible, to promote healthy soils, and to employ folks with a shared value system.

For information about MOFGA’s low-impact forestry program, contact [email protected] or visit our Low-Impact Forestry webpage.