The new draft General Permit for clearcutting being readied for approval this week by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) is a flawed document for a number of reasons. It’s simply bad public policy, bad legal work done in the rush to get it approved, bad public process as it willfully ignores overwhelming public sentiment, and bad science as it seeks to dramatically expand the amount of clearcutting in heavily cut forests.
All of this, of course, will lead to a bad outcome for the APA and for the Adirondack Park.
But, there’s a better way. The APA could slow down this train. It should postpone action on the draft General Permit or deny it outright and then begin a better process towards a better outcome. The APA should fully investigate the legitimate issues facing large-scale forest managers across the Adirondacks. It’s important for the Adirondack Park to keep our working forests working well.
It’s important to note that this is not just an APA matter. The Department of Environmental Conservation is fully on-board with expanding clearcutting of Adirondack private and conservation easement forests.
The APA’s new General Permit would create a process for “pre-qualification” whereby landowners who want to clearcut would submit a variety of standardized information. If they are FSC or SFI (see more below) certified for sustainable forestry they would need to supply less information than if they are certified under a different program. The process seeks to get landowners approval in 60 days.
The better process would be to convene a group of stakeholders from industrial forestland owners, small private landowners, local government, environmental groups, and state agencies and work to reform is woefully outdated (now more than 30 years old) rules and regulations for forest management (APA rules reference standards from 1975). A better outcome is revised rules and regulations. A General Permit is simply a poor tool for large-scale land use decision with long-term impacts, such as forest clear-cutting.
Lets look at the various issues and see why the APA’s General Permit to ease the process for undertaking clearcutting is a bad idea, starting with the view of the large industrial landowners.
The large industrial landowners across the Adirondacks want to be able to make bigger clearcuts with minimal regulatory review. These landowners include Lyme Timber Company, owner of over 250,000 acres in the Adirondack Park, Rayonier, owner of some 120,000 acres, the Forestland/Heartwood Forestlands, LandVest, among others. These landowners largely own the bulk of forest management rights on the 780,000 acres of state-held conservation easements as well as a considerable acreage of non-easement lands.
The lands these companies own have been managed for 150 years. The foresters from these companies decry the condition of the forests that they bought. They openly refer to them as “junk forests” and state that they would like to simply “start over” in many cases by clearcutting large swaths.
The company foresters state that current APA law and regulations that require any clearcutting project of 25 acres or more to secure an APA permit is too onerous. The last company to seek an APA permit was Rayonier a few years ago, which received approval for a half dozen large clearcuts totaling over 500 acres. The permit took 14 months. Neither the APA or Rayonier has a satisfactory answer as to why the permit took so long.
These companies have been successful at skirting APA clearcutting review for the most part. Spend some time looking at these managed timberlands on Google Earth or Bing and it’s plain to see that the large industrial forestlands in the Adirondack Park have been heavily strip cut, clearcut in small non-jurisdictional 24-acre sections, and clearcut in 8-20 acre checkerboard patches. The company foresters say that these methods are not adequate to meet their objectives because current rules force them to literally leave too many trees in the field as buffers in between clearcuts (24-acre clearcuts, checkerboard clearcuts) or as residual stands so that they do not trigger the clearcutting definition (strip clearcuts).
You’ve got to like the honesty of comments that current regulations require too many trees be left in the forest and that what large industrial forestland managers really want to do is to “start over” in many cases.
These forest managers are under a great deal of pressure. They all have to make relatively short-term returns on investment to the different funds that capitalized the purchase of these forestlands. In the Adirondack Park, as well as lands across the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Southeast, has seen a historic transition in the past 25 years in ownership of the working forest. 25 years ago these lands were all owned by paper companies and managed to supply these mills and produce some high-value saw logs. Companies like Diamond Matchstick, Lyons Falls Pulp and Paper Company, Champion International, International Paper, Georgia Pacific, and Finch, Pruyn & Company were the large landowners across the Adirondacks. Diamond Matchstick was the first to sell its lands and mills, but all others followed, though a few sold their land and kept their mills. Finch, Pruyn was the last to go.
From Maine to Ohio to North Carolina the story is the same. Many thousands of acres of these forests were protected for conservation purposes during this upheaval. But out of this industry-wide transition came the Timberland Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs), such as The Forestland Group, Lyme Timber Company, and GMO Renewable Resources, among many others, and the Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), such as Rayonier and Plum Creek Timber Company, among many others.
The heart and soul of these operations is that they are structured for a 10- or 15-year investment period, with some variation across the industry. Their management program capitalizes an investment to buy timberlands. They then sell timber, and if they can they also lease recreational rights. Some of the REITs also develop around high value lakeshores. At the end of the investment period they sell the lands and move on to the next investment. An investor receives an annual return on his/her investment and, hopefully, the return of their original investment with a profit at the end of the investment period. Of course, federal tax laws, which provide great incentives and rewards for these types of investments, are a driving force.
TIMOs and REITs like conservation easements. Why? Because sale of the easement allows them to recoup a large percentage of their invested capital that they were not planning to use: the value of the lands apportioned to development rights and/or recreation rights. This is why TIMOs have been involved in the major easement deals. They really just want the trees.
If the land already has an easement, then the investment is much less as they’re just paying for the value of the timber stock on the lands. The carrying costs, as far as local property taxes, are based largely on the timber value, which is much less than also carrying the value for development rights. The more expensive values of the land, namely the development rights and often the roads, are usually held by the state (though the DEC seems to duke it out with the fee owners about the costs of road maintenance).
The dominant ownership of TIMOs and REITs of the great working forests of the Adirondack Park has led us to where we are today. The influence of the TIMOs and REITs over the APA has led them to try and streamline clearcutting rules that will usher in the most significant changes to the Adirondack landscape in more than 100 years.
The on-the-ground reality of our working forests, as far as conditions on conservation easement lands, is that they are heavily strip cut, checkerboard clearcut, and clearcut is small 24-acre patches. It appears, as per their basic purpose, that the TIMOs and REITs have done everything they can under the present law to maximize extraction of trees, which is how they make money and provide a return on investment.
(An important question, and one not answered here, is: Is timber harvesting more intensive on conservation easement lands than on lands owned by TIMOs/REITs without easements?)
The TIMOs and REITs say they’ve been dealt a bad hand and that they’re doing the best they can. They decry the condition of the working forests, arguing that after 150 years of management on the 10- and 15-year intensive-cut pulp cycle (a high value northern hard wood tree takes 30 or 40 years to grow), these lands are beat. They say that in many areas on their lands they bought the forests that were basically beech monocultures, due to heavy cutting and high deer browse, among other factors. Compounding these problems, they say, they must contend with beech bark disease, invasive pests, and impacts from climate change.
The answer they say is more heavy cutting to facilitate better forest regeneration to grow a future healthy forest. But, they say that the strip clearcutting, checkerboard patch clearcutting, and small clearcuts are not adequate tools. They say what they really need is to be able to make larger clearcuts of 100 acres or more.
It seems to me that the large industrial landowners have dug themselves into a hole, or rather cut their way into a hole. Almost universally, they are not practicing selective harvests and uneven aged forest management. Under such forest management regimes, a forest would be managed to grow high value trees of 40 or 50 or even 60 years of age. Such trees are very high value saw logs. To grow such trees, a landowner invests in timber stand improvement (TSI) cuts to remove low value trees, damaged trees, trees that are not growing straight, etc. The golden rule of TSI is to “take the worst first.” TSI is performed every 10 or 15 years through a stand.
One important part of TSI is that potential future high value trees are left to grow, to get bigger and add value. So, even as low value or damaged trees are removed, the forest will contain a range of tree sizes as seedlings, saplings, 10-, 20-, 30-year old trees, and even older trees, all grow together in an uneven aged forest. Trees harvested are individually marked (“selective harvesting”) by a forester and done so with an assessment as to the future forest health and timber value. Loggers cut down only the marked trees.
What’s being practiced on the industrial forest landscape today in the Adirondack Park is largely even-aged management. This is where a great swath of the forest is cut in one cutting in a strip clearcut or checkerboard clearcut or small 24-acre clearcut. Remaining trees in the standing strips or uncut checkerboard blocks or surrounding a 24-acre clearcut will be harvested by similar means once the cleared areas revegetate in 10 or 15 years. It’s a 2-step process where basically all trees are removed and far far from uneven-aged management.
The TIMOs and REITs say that after the various clearcuts are done, they will practice uneven aged management. But, since easements are sold from TIMO to TIMO or REIT to REIT or REIT to TIMO or TIMO to REIT it’s hard to see how this cycle is ever broken.
For the Adirondack Park working forests owned by these large industrial landowners it seems that we’re in a race to the bottom.
This is too bad. TIMOs/REITs were instrumental in helping to build the conservation easement program in the Adirondacks and across the Northern Forest. Their role in helping to protect the Park’s open space landscape cannot be denied. The question is whether they are a historical bridge from the 150-year pulp cycle to long-term uneven-aged northern hardwood forest management or a management phase that sets forest development back decades as they leave the forest in a worse condition than they bought it, but were successful in returning making a good return for their investors.
The Adirondack environmental community helped to create the state’s conservation easement program. A tremendous amount of work was done in the 1980s and 1990s in the state Legislature, state agencies, Governors, and with public education, to start the easement program and then to adequately capitalize it. The Adirondack environmental organizations led this work and the 780,000 acres of conservation easement lands in the Adirondack Park is one of the great conservation accomplishments of the past 25 years.
It’s a bitter pill indeed for those of us that worked so hard to build this program that forest management on easement lands is marked by strip clearcuts, checkerboard patch clearcuts, and 24-acre clearcuts and now the conservation easement managers are advocating for the opportunity to undertake large-scale clearcutting as a regular practice.
It seems we’re further from sound, long-term uneven-aged, selective tree management than ever before. The tragedy is that an uneven-aged, selective tree managed forest yields high values where one person cutting selected trees in the forest can supply dozens of others with wood to make secondary wood products. That’s the nucleus of a sustainable economy in the Adirondack Park.
At best, clearcutting delays this type of sound management, delays a sustainable economy. At worst, it forecloses the opportunity to even create an uneven-aged, high value forest and a robust forest products economy. The APA, unfortunately, is aiding and abetting this race to the bottom.
The TIMOs and REITs want to clearcut larger areas for all the reasons stated above. They want to cut great swaths of 100 acres or more. Out of these clearcuts, they say, a better forest they will grow. It will be a grand uneven-aged forest dominated by healthy, high-value, northern hardwood saw timber trees. So they say.
It’s hard to see this happening based on the condition of the industrial forests today.
The APA plans to act on approval of a new General Permit for clearcutting of commercial forestlands at its February 14-15th meeting. And, yes, this General Permit is a valentine to the TIMOs and REITs and large industrial landowners in the Adirondacks.
Landowners that qualify for the General Permit will be granted authority to clearcut lands in blocks of 100 acres or bigger in 60 days. The TIMOs and REITs say they will move ahead with clearcutting of their forestlands whether through the General Permit or through an APA review process.
Clearcutting is their next strategic move, seemingly to meet the requirements of their investments.
The General Permit is deeply flawed. It’s flawed because it’s the wrong tool for regulation of forest management. But it’s also flawed because the APA has not invested the time or energy to research or study this issue. The APA is simply reflexively trying to honor the request of influential large forestland owners without looking at the long-term consequences.
Lets take a look at the major problems with the APA’s draft General Permit for clearcutting.
APA predicates its new General Permit for clearcutting on FSC and SFI certification programs
One thing the APA and the industrial forestland owners point to is that everything they’re doing is vouchsafed by the international sustainable forestry certification programs of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Virtually all of the industrial forestlands owned by the TIMOs and REITs is FSC and SFI certified. This is largely a cost of doing business for these companies because the European export market is the dominant high value market for the Northeast USA and the European market only accepts FSC certified trees.
The APA says, basically, if the clearcutting practices of the TIMOs and REITs are good enough for FSC and SFI, they’re good enough for them too. Through its new General Permit, the APA is basically delegating its permit authority to FSC and SFI. This is an action of questionable legality. An FSC/SFI management plan is a poor substitute for the findings of facts, conditions, and 39 development considerations that are integral parts of any APA permit.
FSC originated as the environmentalist’s sustainable forestry program. SFI was the American forest products industry corporate response. The two programs duked it out through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Market realities drove SFI to move towards FSC and financial realities drove FSC towards SFI.
Outlets like Lowes and Home Depot, among others, made big public commitments to sell FSC products. The got great media and plaudits for bold green actions. SFI did not want to be left behind so it largely matched up its criteria to mostly meet FSC standards.
For its part FSC saw that the major funding it enjoyed from foundations to launch and initially sustain the effort was drying up as the environmental foundation world turned away from sustainable forestry towards global climate change. FSC had to figure out a way to attract more acreage into its certification program to sustain it as landowners pay an annual fee to be certified and large up-front costs. FSC needed to go where the acres were and that was not with small green groovy landowners, but with the TIMOs and REITs who own millions of acres. To gain participation from the big boys and girls, FSC matched down its criteria to SFI. Now almost all major landowners in the Adirondacks and elsewhere are jointly certified.
One irony of the FSC/SFI mixing and matching is that SFI caps, with exceptions, clearcutting at 120 acres. FSC has no cap, but leaves clearcutting decisions to the long-term prescriptions in the management plan for the property. FSC will allow large-scale clearcutting if it’s undertaken with the objective of restoring a native, uneven-aged forest.
The problem is that it takes a long time to grow a native uneven-aged forest. Yet, the clearcutting is done on the front-end. Long-term forest management is what allows a forest to recover. Long-term is not something that the TIMOs and REITs are all about. As discussed earlier, the TIMOs and REITs are short-timers, but they want to use the tools, such as clearcutting, for long-term management.
FSC and SFI are also voluntary. These certification programs are not binding on the lands (though some easement lands have binding language clearly making maintenance of certification a clear preference) and could be dropped by subsequent landowners long after the clearcuts have been completed.
Management of recovering forests or poorly managed, even-aged forests, such as the large swath of forests covered by conservation easements in the Adirondacks, has proven to be a challenge for FSC. They’re great for ensuring sustainable forestry over a well-managed uneven-aged forest. FSC has drawn sharp criticism for certifying plantation forests and monocultures. FSC’s permissiveness in approving clearcutting has drawn heated skepticism from many who were initial supporters. Some states have acted to further regulate FSC certified lands due to its flexibility in allowing clearcutting.
For its part the APA has not produced any policy research or analysis on the strengths or weaknesses of these certification programs other than a limited handout.
The best option for a recovering forest is often just leaving it alone and letting nature heal it over time. But this doesn’t comport with the return-on-investment pressures of a TIMO or REIT.
It is a weak argument for the APA to make that FSC and SFI certification programs are adequate substitutes for an APA project review for a clearcutting project, but as we’ll see with other sections of this article, this is the APA’s single best argument. APA’s legal work and process is simply deficient – laughingly so.
The APA issued a negative declaration under SEQRA for the General Permit. This is an action under SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review Act) where applicants or government bodies define publicly the potential impacts of its action. In issuing a “Neg Dec” a project sponsor makes a declaration that its project will have no negative impacts. A “Pos Dec,” or positive declaration, signifies the possibility of a negative impact caused by the project and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that details the potential impacts and planned mitigation would follow.
In issuing the Neg Dec here, the APA stated definitively that it does not expect any negative impacts from large-scale clearcutting and no EIS is necessary. Really?
This Neg Dec contains many significant errors. Lets look at them.
In the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF), which is part of the Neg Dec, the APA answered “No” or “NA” (Not Applicable) to a variety of questions. It’s informative to review this EAF because some of the APA’s answers are truly stunning and reveal a willful determination to put on blinders to potential impacts in order to rush this General Permit to approval. The whole Neg Dec and EAF are posted.
In the EAF, the APA answered “>25 acres” to a question about “total acreage of project area.” In reality, this General Permit will likely affect more than 1 million acres. That the APA issued a Neg Dec for an action that could affect over 1 million acres has to be some kind of record for the largest Neg Dec in state history.
On the question to whether the proposed action is “contiguous” to “sites” “listed on the national register of historic places” the APA answered “NA.” This is puzzling because the National Register of Historic Places lists the Adirondack Forest Preserve. This was done in 1966. (Hey, it’s easy to find on Wikipedia.) The Forest Preserve shares hundreds of miles of boundaries with lands likely to be clearcut under this General Permit. In fact, pictures of strip cuts, checkerboard patch cuts, and small clearcuts posted on PROTECT’s website show many of these cuts to forests that border Forest Preserve.
There were some other beauties too.
To EAF question as to whether “hunting or fishing…opportunities presently exist in the project area” the APA answered “NA.” Many conservation easement lands allow public hunting and fishing rights. Many lease hunting and fishing rights. Clearcutting has been found to be detrimental to certain wildlife. But the APA says NA.
The EAF answered NA to the question as to whether these lands are used for “open space recreation” yet a number of easements include various public recreation rights, including hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, mountainbiking, etc.
On the questions of how many acres of “vegetation (trees, shrubs, ground cover) will be removed from the site” APA answered “>25 acres.”
Whether “lakes, ponds or wetlands” are contiguous to the project? NA. Whether the project area is known to include important scenic views? NA. Whether the project area has unique geologic formations? NA. Is the project area contiguous to critical environmental areas? NA. Is the project site located over an aquifer? NA. The list goes on.
The APA’s failure to identify even a single adverse environmental impact from the proposed clearcutting General Permit, or to acknowledge that there was public controversy related to the action, signals that the APA failed to take the required “hard look” at the environmental impacts of the General Permit and that it failed to provide a coherent rationale for a negative declaration.
The APA should rescind the negative declaration that it issued for the proposed General Permit for clearcutting, and it should conduct a new environmental assessment of this action. A positive declaration is more appropriate. Once a positive declaration is issued, the APA should then prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) because the proposed General Permit has the potential to have at least one significant adverse environmental impact, if not many.
APA is making policy by anecdote as recommendations made primarily by industrial forestland owners and managers from TIMOs and REITs were taken as gospel and completely unscrutinized. The APA never justified the need for expediting clearcutting projects. The APA never provided any independent analysis of the role of clearcutting in Adirondack forest management. At a meeting of stakeholders in January, the APA stated that the General Permit “might not help, but it won’t hurt.”
Forest clearcutting has been a major public controversy for decades. There has been a great deal of research about long-term harm cause by clearcutting. Accomplished scientists such as E.O. Wilson have written about the hazards of clearcutting and ecologic changes from clearcutting have been well documented by ecologists such as Gene Likens for decades. The APA insists on moving forward on this issue in an information vacuum.
Good science and good data make good public policy. Policy by anecdote makes for poor public policy.
The APA held a public comment period in November-December 2012. Over 200 comments were submitted where 90% opposed this action. Comments came not just from environmental groups, but from scientists, foresters, landowners, Park residents, and people from across the state and country. The APA is apparently unimpressed as they’re moving ahead with a slightly tweaked, but still deeply flawed General Permit.
The APA should put the brakes to this General Permit. A better process, which will produce a better outcome is to focus on the APA’s rules and regulations that govern forest management in the Adirondack Park. These rules are outdated. The APA has in its past successfully managed a public process to review and revise its rules and regulations. It should do so again for its outdated forest management regulations. The problems facing forest managers could be solved through an open and transparent fact-finding process that works to revise the APA’s rules and regs.
This is the path the APA should take.