Ice storms leave decades of damage Maine landowners can do little except wait for nature

October 12, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GORHAM, Maine -- Five generations ago, the land was given to one of Everett L. Towle's ancestors -- payment, family lore has it, for service in the Indian wars.

Over the years, it has been variously farmed, hunted or left to revert to woods. The land served the family well: When it was time for Towle to go to college, his father cut some trees and sold them to pay the tuition.

Last winter, though, the steadfast land took a serious hit. Two ice storms that paralyzed much of the state for several weeks in January were devastating to its trees. About 13 million acres of forest were damaged as ice accumulated on tree branches and snapped or bent them.

"You could hear trees falling like gunshots," recalled Towle, a retired U.S. forester who serves as president of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine. "It sounded like a war.

"This is a loss of 30 years of growth," he said, walking through his fragrant woods where the trees are broken like oversized matchsticks. "It's kind of frustrating, there's not much that can be done. Timber takes about 80 years to grow to full-size."

The severity of the ice storms seems stunning to many. No hurricane or forest fire in anyone's memory compares to the damage they left in their wake.

"It was like a giant walked through and stepped on all the trees," said Dennis Brennan, a state forester.

Scarred landscape

As the seasons have cycled since that devastating winter, each has brought a reminder of the ice storms' lingering damage. In the country's most wooded state -- about 90 percent of Maine is forested -- the impact has been widespread.

In the cold gray of winter, the leafless trees showed their damage with X-ray clarity: the crowns lopped off, the branches hanging like broken arms.

In the spring, the traditional tapping of maples for their syrup-producing sap was subdued, as maples damaged by the storms were tapped only lightly or not at all for fear of adding more stress to the weakened trees.

Summer as always brought leaves, but even they couldn't mask the bent and broken trees and the numerous trucks of loggers who had cut down the most severely damaged ones.

Now, as autumn brings the brilliantly colored foliage that attracts hordes of tourists, some woodland owners see bare patches where once there was wave upon wave of reds, oranges and yellows.

"The birch trees have lost their leaves early, probably from all the stress," said Fred Huntress, a woodland owner and forestry consultant in Poland Spring. "Most of them were bent right over by the ice storm."

In his part of the state, he said, the birch leaves usually turn yellow in mid-October and fall off by November.

More worries

Woodland owners have more to worry about than this autumn's color display. Unlike farmers, who have another chance next year if this year's crop fails, woodland owners work in a time frame measured in decades.

Towle's group has 1,600 members, each of whom owns from 5 to 5,000 acres, with the average being about 100 acres. Some simply maintain the woods for hiking, hunting and bird-watching. Others use them as investments, growing trees that they'll ultimately sell as timber when they need extra money.

People here have a deep connection to their land, both its stark beauty and its willful ways. They use the word "stewardship" often to describe their role in maintaining their land as woods for future generations.

"I think of this as my woodland," said Judy Berg, who with her husband owns 250 acres of forested land in Buckfield, a town west of Augusta. "It's where I live and where I vacation. It's my exercise and my recreation. It's my investment and my legacy and my meditation."

The Bergs bought the land 35 years ago as a summer getaway from their Boston home and moved to it year-round in 1974. It is in the band of central Maine that experienced the most severe effects of the ice storms, and Berg estimates about 60 percent of the trees on her land were damaged.

Plenty of firewood

There's not much that can be done but to clear the debris. "We have lots of firewood and mulch now," Berg noted wryly of the damaged limbs that have been chopped and chipped.

The Maine Forest Service estimates total damage may reach $300 million.

Landowners are faced with long-term problems: Some trees are so badly damaged they must be chopped down, leaving a sparser forest that will take decades to regenerate. Trees with more moderate damage may remain viable, but will grow more slowly as a result of the lingering stress caused by the storms. Even trees with light damage will have to be monitored because the open wounds where branches or crowns were broken leave them vulnerable to insect infestation, disease and rot.

"There are some places where it will be years before we have any kind of trees back on the ground," said Dave Struble, an entomologist with the Maine Forest Service. "Some won't be replaced in my lifetime."

Irony of nature

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