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A Visit to the St. John Forest

"I brought back with me a clearer understanding of the complexities of managing a forest."
- Barbara Trafton

One of the best parts of serving as a trustee for the Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is the opportunity to get outside and see our conservation staff at work on the lands and waters of Maine. In March I joined Bill Patterson, Northern Maine Program Manager, for a visit to the Conservancy’s land around the St. John River. This was my first trip to the 185,000 acres acquired by the Maine Chapter in 1998 in an historic campaign to conserve the land around the St. John River. I had always wanted to canoe down the St. John but thought this “land” trip would be a good first step in broadening my knowledge of this part of northern Maine.

Perhaps, an early signal that this trip would be a bit different from your usual field trip or winter forestry tour was the memo from Bill mentioning “muddy roads” and “heavy trucking suspended.” Of course, there was also the extensive packing list, including passport, hard hat, snowshoes, and sun block! You see, the only way to get to our land is by driving to Jackman, crossing the border, driving for an hour in Canada, and then crossing back into Maine at St. Aurelie (border crossing only open 9 to 5!). It’s all dirt roads from there to Pelletier’s logging Camp T7R16!
Now, a word about Bill: he’s an amazing TNC forester and a skilled trip leader. Memo after memo arrived to prepare us for our adventure; one contained 6 detailed attachments, including a 12 year comprehensive review of the St. John land, a forest management plan, a draft cedar protocol, and a harvest plan for our reserve expansion area.

Besides Bill, we also were accompanied by the Maine “A” Team: Barbara Vickery, Director of Conservation Programs; Josh Royte, Conservation Planner; and Nancy Sferra, Director of Science and Stewardship. Plus we were joined by knowledgeable partners and foresters from Baxter State Park, Maine Natural Areas Program, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, along with a few other forestry experts. My fellow trustee John Sowles and I rounded out the group.

The Maine Chapter has worked for the past 12 years to balance our conservation goals with sustainable forest management in the St. John woods. The conservation value of protecting 77 out of 120 miles of river frontage and substantial river buffers with mature trees makes this area a unique recreational experience for present and future generations to enjoy and appreciate. We have also established two large reserves to protect biodiversity, to continue research in undisturbed stands of trees, and to accommodate and evaluate climate change effects.

Along with the protection of the St. John River and the establishment of two large forest reserves, we have worked for the past decade with professional foresters to manage sustainably the remaining 125,000 forest acres. A feature of this trip was the opportunity to meet with our foresters from Huber Corporation, Jim O’Malley and Kenny Fergusson, and to walk in selected forest areas to discuss a 10-year phased expansion of forest reserves, to view moose browse damage, to examine the forests from the perspective of providing habitat for the Canada lynx and the American marten, and to examine ways to continue with economically viable harvesting while still meeting conservation goals! Suffice it to say, I was with a high-powered group of foresters, academics and conservationists, and I knew that my role, as a TNC volunteer and board member, was to listen and learn and to avoid getting lost in the woods!

Our first night at Pelletier’s Logging Camp started with a group dinner and introductions before retiring to our cozy 16-man bunk room! Day One (sunny and 80 degrees) included an amazing ride in the Chevy pick-up with Nancy Sferra, the mud rodeo queen of the North Woods, to an area where we half-hiked, half snowshoed to view hardwood harvest operations and moose browse activity. Throughout the day I began to expand my vocabulary with new words and phrases: canopy release, retention patches, patch cuts, slot cuts, reserve expansion, cedar regeneration, monitoring, and harvest prescriptions. It was a glorious day in the forest with even a drive by Baker Lake, the starting point for the St. John River trip. The ice was out, and it looked perfect for a canoe launch.

Day Two took us to T9R18 for an interesting tour of a cedar forest and a chance to hear from Charles Tardiff of Maibec, the largest manufacturer of Eastern white cedar shingles in North America! The name Maibec is a combination of Maine and Quebec, signaling the geographic focus of the company. Charles discussed the market for cedar, his products, competitors, and his innovative approach to utilizing fully the cedar resource. Barbara Vickery raised the possibility of cedar kitty litter to add economic value to the “leftover” cedar chips after the initial process of milling out posts and shingles; this idea clearly registered with Charles’s entrepreneurial mind!

And so, we headed back to Maine after our 2-night/3-day journey to the St. John woods! I brought back with me a clearer understanding of the complexities of managing a forest to achieve both economically viable harvesting and the conservation goals of protecting habitat for species such as the Canada Lynx and the American Marten. I appreciated more fully the richness of our work with the University of Maine, the North Maine Woods, Huber Timber Management, and other players in the forest industry. TNC’s role as a manager of forestland has evolved from the 1998 acquisition but was not fully anticipated or sought as a conservation strategy at that time. Nevertheless, over the past 12+ years, TNC has gained a solid reputation for thoughtful and balanced forest management and has become a respected and active participant in the forestry community. My days in the St. John woods left me with an eagerness to return—perhaps, to canoe the waters of the St. John River during high water in some future May!

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