Who will save the Adirondack Park’s timberlands?

Can the discussion of the future of the Park’s commercial timberlands move beyond a fight over clear-cutting? (Photo: Lyme Timber)

There’s universal agreement that the Adirondack Park’s commercial forests are a vital part of the region’s tapestry.

The million or so acres of private timberland serve a wide variety of functions, providing jobs, allowing recreation, sustaining wildlife habitat, and serving as open space “connective tissue” between stands of forest preserve.

But there’s also a growing consensus that big chunks of the Park’s commercial forest is in terrible shape.

“If you see a “for sale” sign on a log landing, that forest most of the time has been high-graded and they’ve cut the value out and left a low quality forest,” says Sean Ross.

He’s director of forestry operations with Lyme Timber, which owns a quarter million acres of commercial forest in the Park.

That view is shared by environmentalists like Peter Bauer with Protect the Adirondacks.

“One of the things we heard at the meetings, is the large landowners say, ‘Look, we’re stuck with a forest that has been hit hard and hit continuously for the last 150 years’” Bauer said.

“And frankly in the words of the foresters they’re left with ‘junk’ forests and they just need to start over.”

In theory, this is a challenge that lies directly on the doorstep of state regulators, including the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation.

A big part of the reason those agencies exist is to watchdog timber harvests on private forest lands.

But the APA and DEC haven’t reformed their regulations in significant ways in decades.  And they’ve also failed to gather basic data about the health of the forests.

How much clear-cutting is going on?  No one knows.

How have dramatic changes in the timber markets and in ownership patterns for hundreds of thousands of acres of Adirondack forest affected harvesting standards?  It’s a mystery.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, have seized for the most part on the narrow question of clear-cutting as a rallying point, energizing their memberships without offering much in the way of nuanced thinking about how forests can or should be managed.

In the past regulatory reform has been so controversial, so risky for all the parties involved, that problems have been ignored and solutions deferred.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Park’s timber industry is being steadily concentrated on smaller and smaller chunks of forest, as more timberland is either developed for real estate, or acquired for the state forest preserve.

In other words, we need the remaining timber stands to be incredibly well managed, if they are to carry a big environmental and economic load.

So far, we don’t have many answers.  What we do have is a clear — and fairly universal — sense that this is a problem that needs addressing soon.

“All you have to do is look at the stands throughout the Park and you find that poor genetic stock was left [and] you have a reduction in maple,” says Ross Whaley, former APA chairman and the former head of the SUNY college of environmental science and forestry, who now represents the Adirondack Landowners Association.

“So if you look at that history, it looks to me like we’ve been practicing bad forest management here.”

How do we change that — and soon?  Comments welcome below.

Tags: , , ,

29 Comments on “Who will save the Adirondack Park’s timberlands?”

  1. Rancid Crabtree says:

    For decades I’ve been spouting off in support of a sustainable timber management program on State land in the Park and elsewhere. Done right the income would be a help to the states coffers, to employment and most certainly to the forest itself. A great deal of the harvest could actually be done with a new fangled, low impact forwarding system called “horse logging”. A little searching should turn you on to outfits run by guys like Jason Rutledge who, while I personal can’t stand the mans personality, are making remarkable progress in creating a sustainable, horse powered harvest system. No big skidders tearing up the woods, no noise to speak of, no long lasting damage is done. Long term yields and improving stands are the aim along with low overhead and good profits. It is an option. I think the State could actually take the lead in this and start using their land holdings, those not of a fragile nature, wisely. Make use of the land as an investment rather than a net loss. At least consider it.

    As to the private holdings, what incentive is there for the owners to do anything but high grade? They know the state will end up with the land in time. Until they see a way to make a reasonable profit off the land in the long term they’ll just use it with the expectation the state will be owning it in few years anyway.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Brian:

    This is an excellent and timely piece. It illuminates an issue that is a perfect example of a critical challenge for the Adirondacks that will brook none of the reactionary side-taking we typically see.

    I agree with you that the issue is not clear cutting, but I think it is unfair to suggest that environmental groups have offered little else. The clear cutting proposal before the APA was obviously a flashpoint, but groups like the Adirondack Council have been advocating for years for an approach to the park that bases policy making upon the idea of ecological integrity.

    It is an indisputable fact that the existing regulatory framework has been obsoleted by decades of progress in ecological and biological research. In my mind what is therefore needed first is a complete overhaul of the State’s regulatory infrastructure with respect to forest management, from invasives to biodiversity to climate change.

    It seems to me that we have a golden opportunity to address these problems in a way that exemplifies what working together can do. There is obvious common ground: a biologically diverse forest tract is best from an ecological standpoint and it is best from an economic standpoint as well. So why not have the experts from academia and industry come together in a setting where no political interruptions will intrude and have them develop a new set of criteria by which the APA and DEC can manage our forest resources? Let us put ecological integrity at the forefront.

    Who could disagree with that?

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Paul says:

    Environmental groups, meanwhile, have seized for the most part on the narrow question of clear-cutting as a rallying point, energizing their memberships without offering much in the way of nuanced thinking about how forests can or should be managed.

    Why would they. They have no interest in seeing the forests managed. They want the forests owned by the state.

    Also, it is environmental groups (like the TNC) that have worked to put these lands into conservation easements where they can be poorly managed. They are doing it for one simple reason. – These easements are just a vehicle to high grade the timber and then dump the land back on the market. At that point the land has its development rights sold off. With the timber value gone the only potential buyer is NYS.

    Brian it seems to me that most journalists have missed this point entirely. They are always toting the line that these are good for the environment and the economy. That is baloney.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 6 Thumb down 7

  4. Paul says:

    Sorry I should have put Brian’s sentence in quotes.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Justin says:

    The environmental groups should create their own certification program to ensure the practice of ecologically and silviculturally sound forestry that respects the natural beauty of the Adirondacks. Programs such as SFI and FSC that are applied globally and are funded directly by the industry provide little comfort.

    Unfortunately low value beech thrives better than anything else in the conditions provided when a significant percentage of trees is left, which is what everyone prefers. Although blight has killed or weakened most mature trees, beech sprouts prolifically from the root systems, thrives in deep shade, is shunned by deer, and has fared much better in response to acid rain than maple, which it competes with. Even if best practices are used for generations, the percentage of beech will inevitably increase.

    Clear cutting can correct the problem by allowing more valuable sun loving species such as yellow birch and cherry to quickly outcompete the beech, whose shallow root systems are severely set back by the disturbance and exposure. The percentage of edge habitat that deer greatly prefer for browsing is much lower, giving maples, yellow birch and cherries away from the edges a chance to grow out of the reach of deer.

    Numerous species of wildlife thrive in the habitat created by clear cuts – moose, bears and other animals that feed on the abundant soft mast during the summer, birds such as grouse, woodcock and various warblers that depend on early successional habitat, and important prey species such as snowshoe hares which will in turn help populations of predators many of us would love to see.

    Done properly and considered on the right time scale, clear cuts can rejuvenate a forest, rather than liquidate it as is the popular view.

    That said, critical habitats and populations can be lost to clear cuts, and there are places where they’d be completely inappropriate. They are an eyesore and are unappealing for recreation for 15-20 years unless you are a grouse hunter or serious birder. This is why I think it is important that the environmental groups create a program that provides strong, independent oversight of private timberlands.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    You would think that this is what professional foresters were invented for.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  7. Paul says:

    The core of the problem is that Wall Street and trees have different views on time. TIMOs don’t have 15 or 20 years to wait. As a state we have chosen a regulatory landscape for the Adirondacks that favors the “back country” land being in large parcels that can really only be owned and managed by larger entities that are now dominated by something very different than the timber companies of 100 years ago that had a very different business model.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  8. Richard says:

    From what I have read, Bob Marshall, one of the founding fathers of wilderness protection, wrote that the forests of the Adirondacks would benefit from scientifically based forest management. I take that to mean that there is a place in the park for sustainably managed forests that produce goods, ecosystem services and jobs. The scientific knowledge is available now (it has been for decades) that would allow that to happen.
    The problem comes when you consider the economic side of owning and managing forestland. New York has the least friendly tax environment for forest landowners in the northeast. Forestland owners have to compete with less expensive forest products from overseas where there is cheap labor and much less environmental protection, and in some cases higher forest productivity. Gone are the days (at least for now) when a fortestland owner could buy forestland, pay the propety taxes, invest in necessary management activites and still make a profit, all from properly managing their forest. The pressure to subdivide large tracts of forestland and convert forestland to development to maximize profit are an indicator of that reality.

    It is ironic that the old timber companies, who onced owned forestlands all over the U.S. over a span of generations and maintained those areas with a long-term view, and who were the target of the mainstream environmental community in the past, are now viewed as having been a more desireable situation than the current ownership trends of inventment goups and non-industrial landowners with short-term thinking.

    But, you can’t simply set minimum standards for forest management and expect that forest landowners will be successful. It is time for the environmental community to stop using the hype of clearcutting in order to drive donations/financial support and start making a sincere effort to work with those in the forest industry (those committed to sustainable forest management, not all in the industry are) to make the wisdom of people like Aldo Leopold, Bob Masrshall, Gifford Pinchot and a host of others, both past and present to come true. Sustainable forest management and good forestry are achievable.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    I dont know much about forest management, but isnt clear-cutting somewhat like a forest fire, which is thought to be good for a forest long term?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  10. Paul says:

    “It is time for the environmental community to stop using the hype of clearcutting in order to drive donations/financial support and start making a sincere effort to work with those in the forest industry”

    Richard, I don’t think that environmental groups in the Adirondacks have any interest in doing this. Their key goal is to put as much land as possible into the Forest Preserve. They do not think that land should be managed for timber production. That is clearly evidenced by the fact that they would never allow any Forest Preserve land to be managed for timber production. No way, no how.

    These groups have only supported conservation easements as a way to stop development on land that could not get into the Forest Preserve for financial reasons in the short term. Now the strategy turns to demonizing the conservation easement lands that they supposedly supported a few years back.

    Here is the question: if the TNC would give NYS all the land they bought from Fynch Pruyn and place it all into the Forest Preserve and classify it all as Wilderness land would Adirondack environmental groups be opposed to the idea? I think we all know the answer. These conservation easements are viewed as a necessary evil.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  11. Paul says:

    Here is the issue. This is a link to Lyme’s website and their investment strategy:

    http://www.lymetimber.com/investment-strategy.html

    If you notice their strategy ends with “the final sale of the property”. These are real estate transactions not long-term holdings where they care much at all about future timber value.

    Peter the foresters here are tasked with getting as much value off the land before they sell it. The owners know that NYS and its partners in preservation are still going to be interested in buying the land even if it is “junk”. In fact they are the only ones that will want to buy it.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  12. Pete Klein says:

    Ultimately, only the Adirondack forests can save the Adirondack forests.
    They were doing quite nicely until we decided we could do a better job of “managing” them than God had been doing.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  13. Paul says:

    We should also keep in mind that much of what Protect describes on their website photos as the “protected” river corridors (they note how those areas have healthy looking stands) were more heavily logged than the “bad” areas they show. That logging was done about 15 years ago, just before they were sold to NYS. Now they are the areas they call healthy?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Paul says:

    “There’s universal agreement that the Adirondack Park’s commercial forests are a vital part of the region’s tapestry.”

    Brain is this true? Statewide if you did a survey would this even be on the radar??

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Let’s not forget history here. Yes, there have been a few large landholders in the ADKs that held forest land for generations and did a good job managing their timberlands. Finch-Pryun for example had a long term view toward managing a productive forest indefinitely into the future, or at least until the final shareholders decided to cash out on all the work of preceding generations.

    But let’s not forget that the reason there is a Park in the first place is that there were many owners who simply raped the land of all value and abandoned it. The State ended up with millions of acres of denuded land and the taxpayers had to pay to fight wildfires. There is nothing new about short sighted property owners seeking short term profits leaving junk forest behind.

    There need to be places in this world left to be un-managed. The private sector had their shot at all of the Adirondacks and they ruined most of it. Thanks to some visionary leaders over a hundred years ago we now have places for people to go up onto the mountain for a time before they return to watch their fellows praying to their golden calves.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  16. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Lets also be realistic Knuckle. The amount the tax payers footed to fight forest fires was not an issue even in “the day”. For the most part the fires burned themselves out with little help for man. Timber management of the 1860′s is nothing like today. We simply don’t have the climax conifer forests of those days that offer the chance for vast fires caused by the slash left behind.

    The private sector did have their chance. So has the State. There is no management on State lands currently. I believe this is wrong. I think the forest lands should be sustainably managed. We need the jobs, we need the timber products, we need a healthy forest. No, we’re not going to log the high Peaks, although a skidder trail is no worse than the current trails and damage our eco-friendly hikers do each year. I fail to see why, other than a law that can be re-written, why the State is letting this land go to waste, doing nothing more than eating up tax dollars. Long term sustainable management would lead to a better forest, more wildlife, less disease and a reduced tax burden. The only argument against the idea is that logging of any kind is simply wrong. We can have both a beautiful forest and a timber industry. It just takes a little forethought and imagination.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  17. Peter says:

    DEC admits they have no control plans for invasive species on Forest Preserve lands. In fact, the prescribed control, thinning / removal, is forbidden under the State Constitution.

    Yo want to talk about “junk forests”? Just wait a few years and look at State land!

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  18. Peter Bauer says:

    Brian,

    Much of this post is on target, but I don’t agree with your statement: “In the past regulatory reform has been so controversial, so risky for all the parties involved, that problems have been ignored and solutions deferred.”

    Certainly, new legislation has not proved viable for the Park to change the APA Act, for the reasons you state, but the APA administered a rules and regs revision process for 10 years that slowly, yet deliberately moved along and resulted in upgrades to scores of rules. This followed a major report in 1994 that included a diverse task force and public hearings.

    I give the APA high marks for the public process it administered for those years from the mid-1990s through 2005/2006 and I give all who participated high marks for sitting through hundreds of hours of meetings and poring over problem statements and draft revisions.

    Jim Townsend, now APA counsel, was key to this process when he was a Commissioner. As part of the staff now I hope he makes it an active part of his work scope.

    While the APA’s forest management rules are outdated and should be updated, they alone are not an answer for the clearcutting expansion controversy. The problem is that short-term investments (10-15 years) begets short-term management. How do we break this cycle and encourage long-term uneven-aged selective tree harvest forest management? I’m not sure that the TIMO/REIT economic realities will allow for long-term management.

    None of us who worked to build the state’s easement program thought we’d be in a position 20 years into it where the industry would be asking to, in effect, clear the decks and start over. None of us who supported FSC in its early years thought we’d see FSC approving forest management based on even-aged, short-term, large-scale clearing of the canopy strategies.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  19. Brian says:

    Peter –

    Your points are interesting. At yesterday’s meeting, APA board member Cecil Wray essentially said that regulatory reform is off the table because of Albany politics.

    It’s an assertion that seems to define much of the public and private attitude in Ray Brook. Whether it’s accurate or not, that’s an open question.

    Dick Both, on the other hand, seemed to suggest that regulatory reform should start ASAP.

    What’s clear though is that right now there seems to be little appetite or political will for the kind of reg reform that would tackle an issue as thorny as logging on a million acres of private Adirondack land.

    We’ll see if that shifts at all in the coming weeks/months.

    –Brian, NCPR

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  20. Paul says:

    “None of us who worked to build the state’s easement program thought we’d be in a position 20 years into it where the industry would be asking to, in effect, clear the decks and start over.”

    Peter look at what the players that were divesting the land were doing in preparation for selling river corridors and conservation easements to the state. Champion was high grading ALL their land. Didn’t you guys get out in the woods and take a look what was happening? We all knew that it was TIMOs and REITs were buying the land. Their investment strategies and time frames are not something new. Nobody should be surprised at where we are now.

    The TNC knew they were selling the Fynch land to a Danish pension fund. That land and even the land the TNC still owns and is logging is probably being high graded as we speak.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  21. Paul says:

    If environmental groups had worked with groups like hunting clubs to try and get this land sold into blocks of say 2 thousand to 10 thousand acres, then the land would have been owned by individuals with a very long term look at the land and not as a real estate transaction to be dumped in 10 or 15 years at the end of the “investment cycle”. It would be logged only in an effort to pay the taxes and it would be the same as other well managed private parcels in the park. It could also be under conservation easements that would have prevented development in perpetuity. Instead the strategy was to knowingly sell the land to TIMO’s and REIT’s. That was a mistake and it was supported by most environmental groups who now seem surprised at what is happening. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Journalists should have seen this coming as well. Instead they had stories about how all the land was going to be preserved for environmental and economic reasons. Just a bunch of propaganda in many respects. I don’t think they did it on purpose but they certainly didn’t do much in the way of investigative journalism on the subject.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  22. Peter Bauer says:

    Brian,

    The difference is amending state law, such as the APA Act (to which I think Wray was clumsily referring), or amending APA rules and regulations, over which the APA has more control (which Booth was referring).

    While I agree that law changes are not possible in this climate, I think the APA could undergo rulemaking. Rulemaking needs to follow SEQRA and SAPA procedurally and politically needs a green light from the Governor.

    Given the wide interest in revising the forest management rules, there could be a focused effort, and politically it’s a consensus direction for the Governor and APA leadership.

    Or, the APA could tough it out and ram through the GP. It seems the votes are likely there and it’s clear the staff and Chair wants to push on. They would need to redo the Neg Dec, which will slow things a bit, or risk legal action because the current Neg Dec is so bad, but other than that if they want to ram this through they probably could.

    The downsides for the APA is that they would forgo the positives from better rules arrived at via consensus and the flawed GP will lead inevitably to bad actions on the ground for which the APA and Governor will be held accountable.

    A better way would be to publicly commit next month to a rulemaking program with a wide body of stakeholders. Any landowner who wants to clearcut before the APA is finished with its rules is free to submit applications.

    I have little confidence at the moment that the APA will set a course for the better way.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. Rich says:

    FSC was, by and large, the environmental communities solutuion to overseeing forest management. FSC looks at forest management activities through the scope of science and objectivity with the intent of promoting forest sustainability. If FSC is allowing even-age silviculture in the form of clearcuts then perhaps there is a reason for it? Particulrly if the decision-making excludes recognition of the emotional response emitted by segments of the public. Acid rain, drought, wind events, insect and disease (particularly non-native); in addition to some landowner activities, that have been conducted outside of forest certification programs and/or without oversight of forest management professionals and that have not met the test of good forestry practices are all playing a role in pushing some forest stands into an undesirable situation.

    The solutions need to be science based – not something you can necessarily count on when a wide body of stakeholders are influencing the outcome. After all, isn’t that how the current, non-science based definition of clearcut was defined by the APA?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  24. Rancid Crabtree says:

    What will happen is that the same players as always will have their way after making a show of being objective and fair. The preservationists will win out because they have the money and political clout. It’s just smoke and mirrors. The “management” will be an end to logging at all. The State lands will go unmanaged and will suffer for it. IOW, nothing will change appreciably.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  25. Paul says:

    The claims being made that there is no limitation to the size and scope of clear cutting that would be allowed under these general permits is just plain false.

    Rules that would require some kind of low grade cutting in an effort to improve the quality of the remaining timber and speed its growth (Peter I assume that is the kind of rules changes you are suggesting) is what these foresters are trying to do anyway with these clear cuts. The problem on a lot of this land is what Brian describes above all that is left is “junk” in many cases. This was probably caused by the massive amount of high grading that was done (and the subsequent blow down and other problems that followed) before the land was dumped by the paper companies.

    Peter what are some examples of the rule changes that you would like to see the APA make that would fix the quality of these timberland’s. We know what you want to stop but what is your solution?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  26. Nature says:

    Peter (Bauer),

    Are you a forester? Did you really develop the state’s easement program? Does the APA have forestry staff? If not, how can APA be expected to develop sound forestry practices, or monitor them? Can you advise them? Once again, are you a forester?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul: “If environmental groups had worked with groups like hunting clubs to try and get this land sold into blocks of say 2 thousand to 10 thousand acres, then the land would have been owned by individuals…”

    The sale of the Finch-Pryun woodlands was part of a deal to sell the entire F-R holdings to an investment group in one fell swoop. The sale of the forest lands, and the power generating capacity etc, provided the cash for the investors to make the sale work. I have no personal knowledge of the workings of the deal but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out the investors never brought a dollar to the table when they signed the deal. Nobody was going to sit around waiting for small fry to come up with money to buy off parcels 1,000 acres at a time. The deal couldn’t have happened that way.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Rancid Crabtree says:

    “Peter what are some examples of the rule changes that you would like to see the APA make that would fix the quality of these timberland’s. We know what you want to stop but what is your solution?”

    Why, the answer is to sell the land to the State of course!

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Paul says:

    Knuck, yes I understand how the deals went down. It is too bad that the state, environmental groups, and these sporting clubs could not have worked together. The TIMOs could not have bought the lands if they couldn’t sell the easements to the state. The state could have used that leverage to allow the land to remain on the market and eventually the owners would have wanted to sell to the smaller buyers. They would have made more money also. The per acre price would be higher with a 5000 acre parcel. And the land would now be owned by someone who actually cares what happens to it over the long term.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

Comments are closed.