There are few places where forestry affects the lives of so many as it does in the aptly-named Pine Tree State. With almost 90% of the state covered in forests, forestry in Maine accounts for $8.1 billion of the state’s economy and creates approximately 31,822 jobs. These forestry jobs include foresters, loggers, truck drivers, and sawmill workers. Woods work is nothing new to Mainers. In fact, Forestry is such an economic behemoth in the state that one could think of it as less of an industry and more of a history, culture, and lifestyle dating back to the state’s settlement. To fully understand the true importance of forestry in Maine, we have to go back to the beginning.
The Early Days
Timber Fit for a King
When the British first began to settle Maine (then part of Massachusetts and referred to as the District of Maine), the crown was quick to realize its value. Millions upon millions of acres of prime timberland covered in towering white pines were, for the British naval power, as good as gold. These trees could be used for ship masts. Ship masts had to be made from a singular piece of large timber, so they were hard to acquire in the old world where forests had been a poorly-managed resource. With such a strategic asset in hand, the British navy would be unstoppable, so the king took possession of usable white pines by hiring Surveyors of Pines and Timbers to mark every mast pine within 10 miles of a navigable waterway with the King’s Broad Arrow, thus making it property of the crown, and making its unauthorized harvest by colonists punishable.
The Beginnings of Modern Forestry in Maine: an Empire of Paper
Toward the end of the 19th century, after steam power had both disrupted the mast industry and kick-started the industrial revolution, a new use for Maine’s wood was being developed. Traditionally, paper was made using pieces of cloth fibers, but Maine’s fibrous spruce and fir proved to be a cheaper and more abundant alternative. A bountiful paper industry was thus created, and forestry in Maine would never be the same. Companies like Great Northern Paper dominated the timber and paper industry, fueling an empire of paper (especially newsprint) that brought fortunes and livelihoods to so many throughout the state.
Spruce Budworm: The End of an Era
Beginning in 1970, an over-abundance of balsam fir caused by paper industry clearcutting led to an outbreak of spruce budworm. While spruce budworm is native to Maine, in large numbers they can defoliate and kill balsam fir and, to a lesser extent, spruce. Between 1970-1985 the spruce budworm killed off 25 million cords of wood, devastating the forest industry. Salvage cutting was rampant, and much of the state’s forests were subsequently clearcut. the outbreak was a major stressor that, when coupled with globalization pressures, slowly crippled much of Maine’s paper industry and led to a decline in the prominence of forestry in the state’s economy.
Forestry in the Modern Maine Economy
Despite being a smaller component than in the past, forestry continues to be a major part of the Maine economy. Unlike in days of masts and paper, it is a diversified industry that it is arguably much healthier than it ever has been! Harvesting is safer and more sustainable, and products are far more varied than just paper or lumber.
In the past, logging was hard, laborious, and dangerous work. Loggers went into the woods in the early winter and didn’t come back until spring, sleeping on straw-filled mattresses in cramped log cabins. Chainsaws, sharp axes, and falling trees led to accidents and tragedies, causing the loss of many lives over the years.
These days, logging is by no means easy, but it is much more enjoyable and certainly safer. Loggers are usually inside protected, heated cabs, and instead of laboriously chopping away at pine, harvesters and other mechanized types of logging equipment automatically fell, delimb, and process entire pieces of timber at the push of a button. Operators, however, must not only be skilled in the operation of the machine, but in its repair and maintenance. A thorough knowledge of diesel mechanics is required.
While clearcutting is still a common practice in the state, it is now a much more targeted tool than in the days of paper industry dominance. Foresters today use a wide array of harvest techniques and silvicultural prescriptions, including shelterwoods and thinnings, to harvest wood in such a way that promotes healthy, valuable tree growth in the future. Forestry in Maine is about sustainability first, and teams of professional foresters, responsible landowners, and highly-skilled loggers help make this a reality.
While most of Maine’s paper industry has either gone under or declined in prominence, the range of wood products produced has increased. Maine has a large amount of mills that produce pine boards, shiplap, clapboard, dimensional lumber, cedar shingles, OSB, Hardwood lumber, hardwood pulp, firewood, wood chips, wood pellets, veneer, and of course paper products.
An Old Industry With an Eye for the Future
Forestry is about managing timber resources for today and tomorrow, so despite being as old as the country itself, Maine’s forest economy is as forward-thinking as it can get. While we may not know what tomorrow will bring for ourselves, our country, or our world, we can bet that Mainers will be toiling away in the great Maine woods to bring us the wood products we need to live comfortable lives.