By Dave Mance III
When my father was a boy, he and my grandfather spent evenings one summer scavenging
used railroad ties that had been pushed over a
bank so they could build a barn floor. Why?
I’m sure money was tight, but there was also a
matter of principle. It wasn’t all right to waste
Dad instilled some of this in me, but the moral lesson was
of little use last winter when I cut about 40 white pines for a
building project, took the nice butt logs out of them, and then
left the rest on the ground to rot. Why? Because the third and
sometimes second logs were unfit to build with and I couldn’t
sell them. No one wanted them. I kept hoping to see a frugal
father-son team materialize to haul the wood away for free, but
as yet none have come knocking.
I can justify this type of harvest ecologically – I’m imagining
the happy grouse that comes looking for a drumming log
and finds 30. But the waste mostly drives me nuts. What’s the
carbon footprint on that job, as the wood rots and sends CO2
into the atmosphere? What’s the lost potential of that wood as
a source of energy, as the fuel oil trucks prepare to deliver the
63 million or so barrels of heating oil we’ll burn this winter in
the Northeast? And then, of course, there’s my lost potential
revenue. The tax bill will come due on that land like it always
does, and like most who live in cash-lean rural areas, we could
have really used a return.
I don’t think my story is an outlier. Half a state away, I’ve been
hearing about second and third logs being left in the woods, too.
In northern New England, industry consolidation is take-your-breath-away stark. According to Eric Kingsley of Innovative
Natural Resource Solutions, Maine lost four million tons of
low-grade capacity due to pulp mill and biomass electric plant
closures in the last 30 months.
From a forest management perspective, the struggles of the
low-grade markets are especially troubling. If only the nice trees
in a forest have value, then that’s all that will be cut, and if that
happens, we’ll eventually use the resource up, parcel by parcel.
I don’t know how to solve the problem. We need markets, but
I can’t envision a scenario where we make the American pulp
and paper industry great again – it’s just too hard to picture in
a globalized world where we’re competing with kraft-pulp
made from plantation-grown eucalyptus in tropical third-world
countries that don’t have our environmental, or workers’ comp,
or living wage considerations. Biomass has made some herky-jerky strides in recent years, but I’m cynical after three proposed
bioenergy plants in southern Vermont were recently killed
because of local opposition. Another big part of the problem
is that as capacity shrinks, mechanization is allowing efficient
loggers to still flood the market with wood. Demand is decreasing
and supply is staying constant. It just doesn’t work.
It’s sort of my job to say something now about how the wood
industry is creative and resilient and we’ll figure this out, too.
In this spirit, I spoke with Gabe Russo, a logger and forester
from Rupert, Vermont, who has an excellent reputation as an
innovator. He was having trouble competing in the cutthroat
world of high-value timber sales, so he tailored his business to
harvesting low-grade wood using low-impact CTL equipment
suitable for small woodlots. This allows him to micromanage
a forest stand – one of his markets will take hardwood down
to two inches in diameter. Because he’s a specialist, he can
offer a consistent supply to mills. Because he’s part of a forestry
company, his business model is diversified and the logging side
is tied to a steady stream of timber-stand improvement and
current use work. And because his work is tailored to timber-stand improvement, there’s not the conflict of interest there
would be if he were marking and cutting high-value logs.
This model might be the future, but at present, Russo still
needs markets. He says his only reliable market for low-grade
softwood is International Paper in Ticonderoga, New York.
Otherwise, the pulp markets, like the sawlog markets, open and
close very quickly. He spends a lot of time chasing orders – cutting
the species there’s a market for and trying to fill a quota before
the market shuts down.
I told him I was having a hard time being optimistic,
and I wanted him to tell me how everything was going to
work out. He humored me and said politely, “I don’t know.”
Sensing my need for optimism he said, “I’m not getting rich,
but I’m making a living doing what I like to do.” Later he
sent me an email that said, “I certainly do not have all the
answers, but we are trying and loving it, as well.” These are not
satisfying quotes in the context of predicting the future, but
they’re a great look at what serves as the foundation of the entire
wood products industry these days. From the landowners who
spend their weekends working in their woods, to the loggers
who would rather work fourteen-hour days doing what they
love than eight at a desk, to the mill owner who invests in what
some would say is a past-its-prime industry, to the people in
my line of work who spend their professional lives promoting
working lands, we’re all doing this because we love the woods
and rural life; we’re just following our hearts and making things
up as we go along.
There’s either tremendous strength in this idea, or the whole
thing is exceedingly fragile. I’ll let you pick the take-home