Municipal Forests: Be they rural or urban ....
(from Maine Townsman, March 1996)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer
Managing the forests of Maine. It's a timely topic. What with the Governor's Committee on Forest Sustainability, a.k.a. Maine Council on Sustainable Forest Management, expected to complete its report by July . . . and with the so-called "Ban Clearcutting" referendum on forest practices in the unorganized territories, scheduled for this November...
The TOWNSMAN, decided to look at how municipal governments attempt to manage their own "forests" be they urban or rural, publicly owned or private.
In doing so, it found a variety of management "tools" in place. In the urban-suburban municipalities - those with streets and shade trees, those with the so-called "urban forests" - it found tree wardens, community forestry committees, master tree plans and tree protection ordinances.
Some had been planted in the 70's to deal with the deadly Dutch Elm disease that ravaged their shade trees; some had taken root more recently - outgrowths of a 90's federal grant program administered by the Maine Forest Service in the name of "community forestry".
In the rural areas - those with town forests and major tracts of privately - owned forests, it found not only town forest committees and town forest management plans, in the name of home rule, it also found some municipal timber harvesting ordinances.
Be it urban or rural-based, all were rooted in the belief that trees are a valuable resource. Not only do they give a community an identity, they contribute to its wealth, and not to manage them well, could prove costly in the long run.
Some saw trees, especially those in the downtown, as powerful tools when it comes to economic development. While those in the rural areas, who were fortunate enough to own large tracts of forest land, saw them, if managed properly, as steady sources of non-tax-based revenue. And still others saw trees adding to the value of property per se; noting studies that have show the presence of trees on a residential property increasing its value five to twenty percent.
That said, this article looks at how several communities in the state are attempting to manage their "forests" be they urban or rural.
But, before doing so, the article takes a brief look at a federal program, currently being operated by the Maine Forest Service, known as the "Community Forestry Assistance Program".
In operation since 1992, the program has awarded almost a half million dollars in matching grants to 66 communities throughout Maine, from Augusta to Yarmouth, from Eagle Lake to Eastport, from Brewer to Bath, from Cape Elizabeth to Calais, from Scarborough to Surry, from Easton to Ellsworth.
This month it is gearing up to award another 20 or so grants. While some municipalities have received more than one grant, priority is given to first time applicants, according to David Spicer, a professional forester who coordinates the program for the Maine Forest Service.
The grants, a maximum of $5,000 each, are to be matched through cash or in-kind services. No more than 20 percent of the actual grant funds may be utilized for tree purchases, planting, and maintenance projects. The other 80 percent may be used for planning, management, education and various contractual services.
According to Spicer, the program has "snowballed" in Maine since its inception in 1992. And with luck in Washington, it will continue awarding about $100,000, or 20 matching grants, a year to communities around the state.
As Spicer sees his job, it is to serve as a "catalyst" to communities wanting "to do something" with their trees: to help them determine what they need and to provide them with some matching funds to start doing it.
Spicer also sees himself as a "matchmaker", joining the private and public sector in the endeavor. And last, but not least, Spicer sees himself providing communities with technical assistance through phone calls, on-site visits, workshops and printed materials.
Among the available resources is a list of recommended tree species suitable for Maine, a handbook for tree board members, and sample tree protection ordinances.
For further information, contact: David Spicer, Community Forestry Coordinator, Maine Forest Service, 22 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333-0022 or call 287-4980.
According to a 1982 report-the latest report available-from the US Forest Service, there are approximately 17 million acres of commercial woodlands in Maine. About 700,000 acres are in public (federal, state, county, and municipal) ownership. Of those 700,000 acres approximately 350,000 acres are owned by the state and 114,000 acres are owned by municipalities.
While the TOWNSMAN was unable to determine just how much woodland municipalities in Maine actually own, it appears that a growing number of rural municipalities with forest land are taking pains to inventory just what they do own, with an eye to better managing their forests for income, recreation and wildlife habitat.
Among those doing so are the Waldo County towns of Monroe (pop. 851) and Frankfort (pop. 1,040). Monroe owns some 1,800 acres of woodland; Frankfort owns 1,500 acres. Much of the woodland owned by these neighboring municipalities was acquired in the 1930's and 1950's. "Given up for taxes" as the saying goes.
What follows is a look at some of the tools they have developed for managing their town forests:
Town Forest Committee
While most of the woodland in Frankfort was acquired by the town for back taxes during the 1950's, says Allan Gordon, the chairman of the town's forest committee, it wasn't until the 1960's that all the deeds were straightened out. And it wasn't until the late 1970's that the town decided to manage it for income and appointed its first "town forest committee.
The six-member committee made up mostly of residents with strong woodcutting backgrounds, has broad but limited powers, says Gordon, who himself is a licensed surveyor. For the most part the committee negotiates contracts for harvesting the trees in the town forest and hires a licensed forester to oversee the cutting.
"But ultimately it is the board of selectmen in Frankfort that sign the contracts," says Gordon.
Town Forest Management Plan
Two years ago, the committee recommended that the town hire a professional forester to develop a comprehensive forest management plan.
"We knew we had a tremendous asset and we knew that while many of us were woodcutters none of us were professional foresters and we wanted a more organized approach to harvesting to assure a steady income. We didn't want to do it piecemeal," Gordon told the TOWNSMAN.
For $7,800 a professional forester developed a 10-year plan for harvesting the wood; he also made recommendations for recreational use of the forest.
Gordon says the report flew in the face of local pundits. "Woodcutters at town meeting said we were wasting our time and money in proposing the plan; that the forest had little left in it." But the forester's report proved them wrong, says Gordon, it noted that the forest was worth about $700,000 in stumpage.
"And the good part," adds Gordon, "is that prices are rising and the trees are continuing to grow."
Town Forest Reserve Account
Future income aside, records in Frankfort indicate that harvesting the town forest has brought in about $250,000 in revenues, a.k.a. "stumpage", over the past 15 years. After expenses, that's about $12,000 a year in steady income, figures Gordon. That income, as much as $56,000 in 1992, goes into a special "Town Forest Reserve Account" and is used for major municipal expenditures.
In recent years, the monies were used to purchase a new fire truck for the town as well as a new snowplow. Ten percent of the monies collected from each harvest have been used to establish two scholarship funds for local high school graduates in SAD 56, with recipients receiving $500 each year to further their education.
Town Forest Management Plan
Unlike neighboring Frankfort, which has one contiguous town forest, Monroe's forest, some 1,800 acres worth, is in three major blocks scattered throughout town. Like Frankfort, Monroe had been harvesting wood from this land for many years, having acquired much of the land for back taxes in the 1930's. Like Frankfort, it received a steady income from the land.
"But there was no long range plan", says Monroe Selectman Charles Francis, noting that in the 1950's the town sold a number of parcels to loggers, who logged it and when they didn't pay their taxes returned the land to the town.
"And when you have that much acreage in trees you need a plan," former Monroe selectman Richard Aitkens told the TOWNSMAN. It was Aitkens, who argued for the development of such a plan in 1995. As he told the TOWNSMAN, "When you change selectmen every three years, a plan provides you with the necessary continuity. "
As such, the selectmen turned to Kenneth Strickland, the professional forester who had developed Frankfort's forest management plan a few years earlier and paid him $6,500 (Strickland's price for large parcels is $4 to $5 an acre) to develop a comprehensive forest management plan for the town.
For that price, the town learned that its 1,687 acres of woodland contained 641 acres of hardwood, 76 acres of softwood, and 970 acres of mixed woods. That those woods contained approximately 19,000 cords of pulp wood and 2.8 million board feet of saw logs. And that the estimated total stumpage value of those woods was more than $500,000 or about $300 per acre.
The plan developed for Monroe not only identified the nature of each stand of woodland, it also provided a list of harvesting "priorities" with an estimated stumpage value for each. It also included recommendations regarding property lines and road systems, noting that "two things are very important for good forest management of a woodlot: a good road system and well maintained property lines." If anything, Monroe's property lines were in poor condition, noted the report.
It also made recommendations for recreational use of the land, indicating potential trails, campsites and picnic areas and ways to promote wildlife in the area.
And, last but not least, under a section entitled "To sell or not to sell," the plan reported three lots totaling 50 acres that had potential for house lots and eight lots totaling about 90 acres that were swamp lots.
Pressures on the land
While Monroe has no town forest committee as does Frankfort, it does have a conservation commission, which Francis says is in the process of developing an "adopt a lot" program, whereby taxpayers will take responsibility for periodically walking the parcels of land that make up the town forest, looking for evidence of "timber trespass".
Monroe has been the victim of "timber trespass" in recent years, notes Francis, with woodcutters taking as much as $20,000 in stumpage from the town-owned land, with little in the way of current laws to stop them.
Timber trespass aside, Monroe's town forest could also be under development pressures in the years to come. Francis notes that Monroe is strategically located between Belfast and Bangor and that the bedroom communities for these economic centers are filling up, especially now with MBNA setting up shop in Belfast.
As Francis sees it, conceding that there are those in town who would entertain selling off the forest land for houselots, while selling off the town forest for house lots will generate income, it will also generate expenses.
And as the developed land increases the valuation of the town, state subsidies will be reduced, raising property taxes for all. "By managing the land as a working forest, the town keeps its valuation at a steady rate," says Francis.
Advocating a conservationist/ stewardship approach to the land, Francis told the TOWNSMAN, the reason for developing the plan was "more than a concern to see how much money we can get off this land;" instead, it was a realization that "we live in an age if we do not take careful pains with what we have we will lose it all."
Timber Harvesting Ordinance
Public land aside, this article would be remiss if it did not note that there is a growing number of municipalities in Maine that are passing local timber harvesting ordinances to regulate the harvesting of timber on privately-owned land in their communities. They say their ordinances are in keeping with municipal powers to regulate land use, much the same as shoreland zoning ordinances.
At last count, there were about 40 municipalities with local forest harvesting ordinances on the books, including the Town of Atkinson, which enacted its ordinance about two years ago by a 2-1 voting margin in response to massive clearcutting by timber harvesters on former paper company land that had been sold to developers.
While the cutting was legal under the state's Forest Practices Act that was passed in 1989, townspeople in Atkinson believed that the state law was inadequate and that the cutting was endangering the future of the forest and the local economy.
During the first session of the 117th Legislature, that section of the state law [12 MRSA § 8869 (8)] governing the process leading to the adoption of such ordinances was amended but not in such a way that threw up roadblocks to local regulation.
Among other things, it required that a professional forester participate in the development of the ordinance and the Department of Conservation and the municipal officials have a "face-to-face" meeting to discuss the ordinance and the town's timber harvesting goals.
Tom Charles of the Maine Forest Service told the TOWNSMAN that the amendments did nothing more than codify practices already in place, and he says that while the department in its consultation can make recommendations, municipalities are not required to adopt them.
Among the towns with their own timber harvesting ordinances in addition to Atkinson are Albion, Amberst, Bar Harbor, Byron, Carrabassett Valley, Dayton, Great Pond, Hope, Howland, Lincoln, Linneus, Mt. Vernon, Naples, New Sweden, Nobleboro, Rockport, South Berwick, Vienna, Vinalhaven, and Woodland.
According to Charles, of the 40 ordinances all but two appear more restrictive than the state Forest Practices Act. Some slightly so, but most much more so. And, all but nine were passed prior to the passage of the Forest Practices Act and are not subject to the mandatory consultation.
While no one knows how many shade trees line the public ways of Maine, just like towns with forests, an increasing number of municipalities, many, aided by grants from the Community Forestry Assistance Program under the Maine Forest Service, are beginning to take stock of just what they do own. For if you don't know what you have, how can you develop a management plan, they say.
Recent counts by volunteers in Bath and Brewer identified more than 3,000 trees in the public way in each of those communities, while a recent count in Belfast logged more than 1,600 shade trees. And many more like Augusta and Camden are in the throes of inventorying their "forests".
What follows is a brief look at some of the tools they are employing to inventory and manage their forests
Tree wardens, according to 30-A MRSA § 3282, are responsible for enforcing all laws relating to the preservation of all the public shade trees in a municipality. While they've been part of the municipal landscape for a long time, no one knows exactly how many towns in Maine currently have tree wardens.
Cape Elizabeth is one town where they've had a tree warden since the 1970's and for the past eight years, Rick Churchill has been it. If Churchill had his druthers, the title of his office would be changed to "tree steward" or "tree advocate" or "defender of trees" to more clearly state what the job is really about.
To "defend" Cape Elizabeth's trees, Churchill says he spends about six hours a week on the job diagnosing the needs of the municipality's trees. But it is not Churchill's job to trim and prune or take them down. For those chores he uses his annual budget of about $14,000 to contract out the work. (The town bids the work out jointly with several other towns in the area through the local council of governments.)
Nor is it Churchill's job to only tend to the needs of the town's existing trees. A recent series of federal grants enabled him to add 100 new trees to the town inventory through what he calls a "cooperative tree planting program".
The program put into practice Churchill's belief that public trees need not be planted in the public right of way, where they are victims of snow plows, salt and utility poles.
Instead the program that Churchill designed had homeowners purchasing trees and the town using the grant monies to plant the trees on private land. The only requirement was that the trees be planted within 25 feet of the public right-of-way and that they be within the public view.
As the head of the plant and soil science department at Southern Maine Technical College, Churchill is well qualified to hold the position of tree warden.
Like most tree wardens, Churchill's job description is contained in the town's tree ordinance. And like many tree ordinances currently being adopted, Cape Elizabeth's ordinance asks that the town's tree warden have "training and or demonstrated experience in the arts and science of municipal arboriculture."
Churchill says that as a trained horticulturist, he is not your typical tree warden. However, as a quick survey conducted by the TOWNSMAN indicates, there appears to be no such thing as a "typical" tree warden.
In Augusta, the director of parks and recreation serves as the tree warden; in Bath it is a retired forester; in Bar Harbor it is the public works director; in Ellsworth it is the city manager; in Thomaston it is a citizen who is a professional forester; and in Camden it is a retired citizen who also serves as chairman of the town's conservation commission.
Churchill says tree wardens are found in the smaller cities and towns and are not to be confused with the full-time, licensed professional "arborist" found in a few of the larger cities in Maine, such as Lewiston and Portland.
Master Tree Plan
In addition to tending to the needs of Cape Elizabeth's trees, Churchill's job description gives him the authority to "develop, formulate and revise a Master Tree Plan." And plan he has. In 1989 he developed the town's first master tree plan; in 1994 he updated it.
There were 14 recommendations in the 1989 plan, including:
- A program of regular and scheduled maintenance be supported in the budget to ensure proper care for all public trees.
- Trees to be planted in town be selected based on a recommended list.
- The number of trees planted each year be at least equal with the number removed.
- Trees to be planted in areas where there is insufficient space in the town right of way be planted on private property using a planting easement.
- Trees categorized as "hazard trees" be dealt with in a timely manner.
- The town seek compensation for injury to and loss of public trees and these trees be dedicated to the tree care account.
Data Base: In addition to the above, the 1989 master plan had recommended that "accurate records be kept on tree-related activities to develop a data base to improve future tree care. As such, Churchill conducted a six-month survey of 2,346 trees growing in selected areas in town. The database he developed included not only the types of trees, but the size and condition of the trees.
The inventory was entered into a computer utilizing "Treekeeper Junior" software which is available from The National Arbor Day Foundation, P.O. Box 81415, Lincoln, Nebraska for $200. According to promotional material contained in "A Handbook for Tree Board members" distributed by Maine's Community Forestry Assistance program, the software was designed to help small communities manage street and park inventory data for a limit of 5,000 trees.
Findings: According to that 1994 inventory, there were more than 60 species of tree in the area surveyed. Twenty-eight percent were Red Oak, 18 percent were White Birch, 7.6 percent were White Ash, and 4.9 percent were Norway Maple to name a few of the species. And of the 2,346 trees surveyed, 397 trees were found to be in need of safety pruning, while 68 trees were designated as hazardous and in need of removal.
The survey also noted that Cape Elizabeth had trees as young as five years of age and as old as 200 years of age. Of the 2,346 trees inventoried, 64 percent were classed as "good"; 28 percent were classed as "fair", and 7 percent as "poor", while 10 percent were "dead".
Recommendations: Among the recommendations in the 1994 update are three: (1) that future planting programs should continue to promote diversity; (2) that the town should continue to replace trees in equivalent numbers to removal; and (3) that replacements be on town as well as private property.
Tree care expenditure: The 1994 plan notes that the per capita local contribution for tree care in FY 93 was $2.03. With federal grants through the Maine Forest Service, it amounted to $3.58 per capita. This amount, the plan noted was in keeping with a recent study by the ICMA showing the mean for cities with a population of 5,000 to 10,000 (Cape Elizabeth has a population of 8,000) was $3.29.
The 1994 plan also noted that the ICMA had calculated that the mean tree budget as a percentage of the town's total budget to be less than half a percent. Using Cape Elizabeth's $4 million municipal budget figure, the budget for tree care expenditure should be $19,600. The plan noted that Cape Elizabeth's local contribution to the tree care account was $15,715, but with federal monies added it amounted to $29,410.
The plan concluded saying, "Adequate tree care can be provided at current local funding levels as long as the town continues to receive outside revenues to augment local funding."
Churchill says most tree ordinances, like Cape Elizabeth's, are modeled after the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) ordinance. As noted above, copies of model ordinances are available from the Maine Forest Service's David Spicer.
Like most tree ordinance, Cape Elizabeth's includes a job description of the tree warden as well as a series of definitions, permit requirements, and penalties for violating the ordinance.
While it is not the purpose of this article to detail the contents of the ordinance, it should be noted that all tree ordinances, define "public trees" in accordance with the state statute definition; that is, trees that not only grow on public property but that are also "within public property"; which is to say, trees that are overhanging public property.
In Cape Elizabeth, when private trees overhanging public land are in need of care the town will prorate the cost of the care with the land-owner.
Community Forestry Committee
Not every municipality has a tree warden with the expertise of Cape Elizabeth's Rick Churchill. Those who do not, like Bath, often turn over the task of creating a master/management plan to a committee of citizens.
As such, in 1992 the Bath City Council passed a resolution establishing the Bath Community Forestry Committee "to create a comprehensive program directed at the removal, replacement and care of trees within the jurisdiction of the City of Bath."
According to the resolution, it did so because the trees in the City of Bath were viewed as a valuable asset and because the care of the trees was seen to be an "infinite commitment".
Bath's love affair with trees, like many other towns in Maine was cut down in the 50's when it lost 4,00C of its trees to the deadly Dutch Elm disease.
There are nine members of the community forestry committee. It meets monthly. And over the last three years the committee has inventoried the more than 3,000 trees growing along its streets with the help of some 15 volunteers who spent more than 600 hours completing the inventory.
It documented 65 tree species and noted that more than 175 of the more than 3,000 trees needed special attention; it also located 500 potential planting sites city-wide.
Over the past three years the committee has also raised some $50,000 in federal grants. Some of the grant monies enabled the committee to computerize its data base for long-term management.
It also determined that the current stock of trees was worth between $3 million and $5 million.
Inventories and federal grants aside and value aside, Bath's Community Forestry Committee also established a Forestry Trust Fund for the purpose of securing long-range financial support for the city's community forestry program.