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Developer, Spare This Vital Industry



By ADAM MOORE

December 18 2005

The diesel engine heralds its approach. I sip my steaming coffee, peer over the crescent of frost on the windowpane and watch as traffic passes on Route 77 below. A moment later, there it is, a log truck with its load piled high, rolling toward a North Guilford sawmill. It rumbles past, leaving December's dusting of snow swirling about in its wake. This morning, every morning, and several times a day on my road, a loaded log truck passes by.

Timber does not readily come to mind when one considers the industries of Connecticut. Yet just shy of 60 percent of the land in Connecticut is covered with forest, and among the many things that forest provides is a timber industry.

According to a state study titled "The Forest in the Connecticut Economy," timber drives a $400 million industry in the state and employs 3,600 people, counting suppliers and ancillary services.

Timber begins with trees, and Connecticut grows trees very, very well. A broad diversity of hardwood and softwood trees forms the timber resource of Connecticut, and this resource grows on the land of an equally diverse group of landowners. This group includes public and private water utilities, the state (mostly through the state forests), educational institutions, land trusts, municipalities, corporations and private individuals. Licensed foresters write some 150 forest management plans for these lands annually, and many of these plans call for the planned, periodic harvest of timber. Of about 1.8 million acres of forest, trees are harvested from about 20,000 acres - not the same 20,000 acres - each year.

When Connecticut landowners sell timber, they typically sell what is known as "stumpage." Stumpage prices are based on the "thousand board feet." One board foot is a square piece of lumber one foot wide, one foot long and one inch thick.

The University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System publishes a quarterly survey of statewide stumpage prices. These prices range widely. Black cherry and sugar maple were the most valuable species in the third quarter of this year, with west-of-the-river prices that ranged from $150 to $700 per thousand board feet and $200 to $650 per thousand, respectively. Some species are worth much less. Last quarter, hemlock fetched only between $10 and $90 per thousand.

Licensed forestry professionals harvest about 41,000,000 board feet of timber annually. The average cut, or "job," produces about 85,200 board feet of timber, meaning that there are nearly 500 jobs a year. They can be quite profitable.

Let's say one of these sales was a quality stand of red oak, sugar maple and an occasional black cherry, and averaged $400 per thousand board feet in stumpage. That sale may bring the landowner about $34,000 - not bad. Or perhaps the sale consisted of low-quality logs, ridden with rot, suitable only for making pallets, worth only $50 per thousand. That sale may be worth only $4,250. Either way, high value or low value, timber is a green, renewable, natural product. Timber is money that does, actually, grow on trees.

"Timber is a very good industry (in Connecticut), it's just not a well understood industry," said Doug Emmerthal of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Forestry.

The value of Connecticut's timber industry is illustrated by statistics, and so is its chief problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service says that 87 million board feet of timber are harvested annually in Connecticut, while the DEP's forestry division reports that 41 million board feet are harvested annually. Where are the missing 46 million board feet?

Officials believe the answer is this: The sales reported by the DEP reflect timber operations, which must be reported in accordance with the Connecticut Forest Practices Act. These sales do not include the 46 million board feet of timber generated through the conversion of forest land to other land uses. In other words, the "missing" 46 million feet are cut to make way for development.

That lumber is also riding on the back of the log trucks that pass my window every day. If I look out another window, I can quite clearly see what the chief problem for our forest is. In what was, just one year ago, a stand of white pine, oak and white ash, are now two suburban houses. Anyone can see this change in land cover quite plainly; statistics merely confirm what we suspect.

Fortunately, about 200 people who care about forests gathered at the first Connecticut Forest Forum earlier this month. They adopted a plan, the Connecticut Forest Resources Plan, to help stop the loss of forests, and created a council to help implement the plan. The plan addresses land management, education, economic development and several other aspects of forest enhancement.

The chief problem, not merely for Connecticut's timber industry, but Connecticut's forest, is the future disposition of the land. The forest cover of our state has peaked at 60 percent, and is slipping downward. The forest is, quite literally, losing ground.

Adam R. Moore is the executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant