Timber liquidation – an example up close and personal

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In the late 1970s, when my parents bought the land I grew up on in rural midcoast Maine, two of the three adjoining woodlots had just been cut over. Along our back property line, ruts from the skidders are still evident after 40 years. Their scars, which I slopped around in as a kid, have finally softened under an ever-deepening mantle of leaf litter. Now they manifest as vague, linear depressions – it took time, but the ground healed over.

There are good timber harvests and bad ones. I’ve been alive for two good ones on our property – selective harvests marked out by a conscientious forester (who, in our case, has known the land for his entire long career). The operations were winter cuts by a guy working solo with a chainsaw and a boss tractor or small skidder, the kind of guy who toots the horn of his pickup as he leaves your driveway in the early dark of December, January, February. Eventually, as sawlogs pile up in the temporary yards, a couple of different logging trucks begin arriving every few days until, at last, all the logs are off to the mills – usually just before the ground gets too soft to support the tonnage of a fully loaded rig. The whole enterprise is minimally invasive. And my mom has always made a point of ensuring our cuts have happened outside of nesting season so as not to disrupt the birds.

But last year marked a kind of armageddon in the woods next door – the same parcels butchered back in the 1970s (“BOO’tchered,” as a local old-timer used to say) – a liquidation harvest that raged past the ’70s precedent for destructiveness and then kept on raging. For months. Through the nesting season. Through a mild winter and an unusually wet spring. My parents told me they were hearing the chainsaws start bawling as early as 7:00 AM, and the din would reverberate into hours dangerously dark for anyone on a saw, day after day.

By the time I visited home last July, the saws had left. The woods were quiet. The operation was finished, if not completely packed up – there was still equipment scattered in the wasteland of the main log yard, which my dad called “a moonscape.” My mother took me up to see the damage.

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The story of these woods – absentee owner, fly-by-night contractor, no advice from a forester – is the cursed opposite of my parents’ acreage. Having watched the same land recover over decades, having walked among its trees four seasons a year with, in all, four different dogs (Moses, Ty, Caleb, Gray), my parents get visibly upset when they talk about the present wreckage. Surveying the aftermath with my mom in July was an all but wordless reconnaissance. Taking photos from the vantage of the skidder tracks required jumping down into them. I’m about 5′ 10″ – where the ruts weren’t too flooded to stand in, the undamaged forest floor was at my waist. Along the tote roads, which the cutters make and use when hauling the sawlogs to the yard for loading onto the logging trucks, there was no sign of the former soil horizon – just sandy clay, clay for feet, clay thick enough to keep ponded water from draining out. The water was there all summer, all fall, and is frozen there now.

In conversations with my parents, I’ve tried to offer some hopeful possible outcomes. Although a tragedy and probably an environmental crime (the damage had the attention of a few Maine State officials for a while), this cut may mean the neighborhood woods are about to become a busy place. The open areas should grow over with a new understory of berries and brambles, browse that will bring back the whitetail deer, small rodents and rabbits, and with them fox maybe, coyote, owls, hawks for sure. My parents’ woods, because they’re intact, may serve as the shelter next to the forage grounds. Winter snows will begin to reveal the traffic of all those returning. If the skidder ruts stay wet, they may start filling up with frog and salamander spawn each spring, vernal pools that turn the woods into a raucous chorus of peepers and other night voices. The woods may come alive in ways they haven’t been for 20 years. My parents’ library of field guides will have to move from the back bedroom to a makeshift bookshelf in the kitchen.

But I wonder how long that process of disturbance response, of revitalization, will take. Objectively, I know these are the fast time scales of landscape dynamics. Even so, from a landowner’s perspective, the woods have undergone an effectively permanent transition – the physical legacy of this land-use event will persist for the rest of my parents’ lives, and for the rest of mine. My hope is that the wild silver lining that I think we’ll see has already started to knit itself together.

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