Striving for Forest Sustainability: A Better Way to Assess Progress

land-conservation-smallA new Mitchell Center project will explore efforts in Maine to promote sustainable forest management, including a newly implemented state policy that provides both incentives to landowners and a more scientific approach.

Erin Simons-Legaard, Assistant Research Professor in the School of Forest Resources, and a team of UMaine faculty, graduate students, and research scientists will be working with stakeholders to better understand the status of forest sustainability in Maine and how it is influenced by forest policy, including a recently implemented initiative. The team includes experts in ecological, economic, and social factors related to forest management.

Under the Outcome Based Forestry (OBF) initiative, first proposed in Maine by the Maine Forest Service in 1999 but only recently implemented for the first time in 2013, a landowner would agree to demonstrate measurable progress toward achieving the State of Maine’s Goals for Forest Sustainability. In return, the Maine Forest Service (MSF) would provide incentives, such as exemption from certain provisions of state forest policy. It is a different approach than the Maine Forest Practices Act (FPA), the longtime regulatory mechanism.

The FPA, which was enacted in 1989, has drawn criticism for perceived shortcomings and unintended consequences. The act achieved its aim of limiting large clear cuts, Simons-Legaard said. But, what resulted were more dispersed harvest impacts, including, in some cases, a plethora of smaller clear cuts.

“The amount of forest fragmentation actually went up, which was unintended,” she said.

The project also takes a look at forest certification, a 20-year-old voluntary program that uses a market-minded model to foster environmental stewardship in the nation’s privately owned forests. It offers landowners a potential economic advantage when bringing their products to market, the effects of which have been difficult to evaluate.

During the yearlong project, Simons-Legaard and her team will collaborate with landowners, certification auditors and state officials, the primary stakeholders tasked with oversight of OBF agreements in Maine. They will work together to identify knowledge gaps that limit assessment of sustainability and OBF outcomes. And they will, as a group, create a core set of research questions to assess the influence of certification on multiple fronts of sustainability.

Through this collaborative process, the group will critically examine the use of certification as a means of ensuring Maine’s goals for forest sustainability relative to prevailing practices under the FPA, with an emphasis on timber supply and quality.

“Our goal is to bring together scientists and stakeholders interested in forest sustainability,” Simons-Legaard said, “and work to improve our collective understanding of how best to evaluate different mechanisms for promoting forest sustainability.”