Reviews of Low-Impact Forestry: Forestry as if the Future Mattered, by Mitch Lansky

Read review from: Atlantic Forestry Review; article from Bangor Daily News; Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener; author Bill McKibben; Jim Birkemeier, Timber Green Forestry;

Atlantic Forestry Review, Volume 9 #4 March 2003. Box 1509 Liverpool, N.S. BOT 1KO

"Low Impact Forestry – Forestry as if the Future Mattered," edited by Mitch Lansky and published by the Maine Environmental Policy Institute. 172 pages. Reviewed by Wade Prest.

ABOUT: A comprehensive compilation of information on Low Impact Forestry.

IN A WORD: Wide-ranging; practical.

Mitch Lansky’s 1992 indictment of industrial forestry in the Acadian forests of Maine ("Beyond the Beauty Strip: Saving What’s Left of our Forests") earned him admiration and infamy. The book was highly acclaimed by the environmental movement and by woodlot owners, contractors, and foresters who were being left behind by the ever-increasing scale, mechanization, and capitalization of forestry operations. On the other hand, charges were levelled at the book for what was considered its negativity, lack of understanding, and an absence of practical answers to modern-day problems of the forest industry.

Valid or not, Lansky responds to at least some of those accusations in his new Low Impact Forestry book. Although credited as the editor of the book, he also wrote many of the chapters.

It is probably the first comprehensive book on the subject in eastern North America.

Lansky lives in a small town in the Maine northwoods and has long been active in forest/environmental policy and program initiatives in the state. He was a key personality in the Low Impact Forestry Project that started in north-central Maine in 1997. Much of the material found in the book derives from that initiative, and was published on the project website, in the Northern Forest Forum, or was presented at seminars and field days targeted at the "little guys" who are still trying to earn a living from their woods without destroying it. The New Brunswick Conservation Council and Federation of Woodlot Owners have created a similar Low Impact Forestry project, borrowing some of the Maine work.

"As if the Future Mattered" is a recurring theme. We must treat the forest ecosystem much more gently if we expect our children and grandchildren to continue to reap the benefits of the resource. Those who are strongly committed to the industrial forest model will probably be unconvinced by the evidence presented that the forest has been, and continues to be, degraded by past and current harvest practices.

Supporting the case for Low Impact Forestry are two compelling interviews with Dr. David Perry of Oregon State University, who is known to many in the Maritimes. I particularly liked his dialogue about the "Living Soil," covering many concepts of the complexity of soil life and mechanics in terms everyone can readily grasp.

How often have I heard, "What is low-impact forestry anyway?" Beyond the obvious connotation of the phrase, many of us have diverse notions of a more precise definition. Lansky says that the definition is a work in progress. Nevertheless, he presents a concise explanation that enlightens without dragging on or venturing into the obscure. He discusses basic forest and stand dynamics, succession, and ecosystem structure and functions, and relates these to the goals of Low Impact Forestry, which are to enjoy the entire range of forest benefits while maintaining a fully functioning forest.

The articles nicely relate science to the operational aspects of woodlot management. Protecting soil and water resources, and minimizing (and quantifying) residual stand damage are key chapters that will be especially useful to woodlot owners and LIF loggers.

I would like to have seen more material devoted to logging methods, tools, and equipment. An article by forester-logger Sam Brown examines the pros and cons of several approaches to partial harvesting (fell-and-skid, cut-to-length, bunching, skidding, forwarding), but I was left feeling that he had only scratched the surface. He obviously is very knowledgeable about harvest operations, and there is usually much to learn from a professional who tackles woods work without relying on brute force and capital to overcome the wrenches Nature can throw at him (or her, of course).

Three chapters and two appendices cover economics aspects of Low Impact Forestry. The preamble to Chapter Eleven says it well: Low Impact forestry makes economic sense within an ecological/social perspective and the assumptions which go along with that perspective. The chapter challenges many of the assumptions that underlie the industrial forest model, as well as our broader economic system, based as it is on consumption and continual growth. It addresses many of the obstacles facing low impact operators today: problems of scale, lack of long term perspective amongst landowners, loggers, and mills, degraded woodlots, labor shortages, costs of capital, and the ability to compete with traditional high-production, low-cost operations.

I looked forward to the chapter on how to pay loggers to reflect both production and quality. However, to my disappointment, it was more or less a summary of the problems facing those of us who are trying to do this work, with few new solutions offered.

Other topics broached in the book include contracts, conservation easements, and ways to organize cooperatives to implement low impact forestry. On the matter of forest certification, Lansky is supportive of the Forest Stewardship Council program, although he is quite critical of its implementation in Maine. His remarks do have much relevance for FSC-ers in the Maritimes.

The diverse range of information presented in the book is remarkable to the point of being overwhelming. The chapters do not need to be read in sequence. Those with substantial forestry knowledge or small-scale woods experience can easily skip around, although I think most will want to read all of the book in the end.

For my part, I reread many of the chapters before finishing the whole, and that seemed necessary to absorb all that the book has to offer. The source or authorship of some of the chapters is not readily clear, but otherwise, the book is an easy read.

Low Impact Forestry has many barriers to confront and surmount before it is widely accepted as a superior approach to forest use. Mitch Lansky has compiled a valuable collection of the latest knowledge available on the subject. If the future really matters, this book may be even more successful than his last.

Bangor Daily News

By Misty Edgecomb, Of the BANGOR DAILY NEWS Staff

Monday, November 25, 2002

Forestry expert argues industry must rethink harvesting practices

WYTOPITLOCK - The sky is the limit, says forest policy expert Mitch Lansky.If our descendants wish to continue current harvesting trends in the Maine forest, they will need to fell a 26,000-square-mile forest stretching 137 miles high in the year 2995 - a billion times more than the harvest a millennium earlier.

The American frontier is gone, and forests worldwide are rapidly meeting the same fate. If forestry is to continue, we need to learn to live within our means, to practice harvesting that it truly sustainable in the long-term, Lansky said.

The forest policy expert outlines one vision for sustainable forestry in a new book titled "Low-Impact Forestry: Forestry as if the Future Mattered."

Lansky has been a vocal critic of industrial forest practices, particularly in his 1992 book "Beyond the Beauty Strip," which revealed the impacts of clear-cutting and helped to spark a passionate statewide debate about forest practices.

In the new book, Lansky uses his knowledge not as a critic, but as a teacher.

"I felt that it was important to not just criticize, but to come up with an alternative," he said during a recent interview.

Lansky lives in the North Woods, in a timber-frame home built with his own labor and logs from his own small woodlot. Occasionally, he has harvested trees from his 50 acres of field and forest.

As the forest-practices debate raged in the early 1990s, Lansky joined with a small group of woodlot owners, foresters, loggers and scientists to discuss how they harvest their land and to draft a definition of good forestry.

"A sustainable forest is something that doesn't require human intervention," Lansky said. "The degree that you veer from the natural forest processes, that is the degree that you'll lose something."

Low-impact forestry is "more a direction than a destination," he said, but general principles developed by the group include:

- Selectively cutting individual trees, on the advice of a professional forester, rather than imposing some artificial system on the forest or cutting in a random manner.

· Never harvesting in such a way that it drastically changes the landscape or the forest's natural composition.

· Cutting lower-quality trees first to encourage the growth of more valuable high-quality lumber.

· Developing a long-term goal and a plan for the property.

· Considering the health of the entire ecosystem, and harvesting in such a way as to minimize the impact on the forest's soils and wildlife.

· Ensuring that all types of habitat - including old-growth forests - are represented on the landscape.

Lansky calls the low-impact forestry principles common sense.

"No human being could possibly understand all of the workings of the ecosystem, but you can have good common sense," he said. "The general idea doesn't require a rocket scientist."

But even the most responsible forestry should not be practiced on every acre of the Maine woods. A certain portion of the forest needs to remain in a natural, wild state. All forestry is so young compared to the life of the forest that it's impossible to say that we know all the long-term effects of our actions, Lansky said.

"We're doing an experiment. We need a control," he said.

Many Maine woodlot owners are practicing low-impact forestry, harvesting with horses or small machinery to minimize their impact. A typical harvest using large machinery such as skidders and feller-bunchers requires the cutting of 25 percent of the trees just for machinery trails. One advocate of low-impact forestry estimates he sacrifices only 8 percent of his woodlot to trails.

"Just to run these big machines takes a huge footprint out of the woods," Lansky said. "When you have to make these wide trails, you're doing heavy cutting whether you want to or not."

Additionally, these low-impact methods tend be more labor intensive, and can greatly benefit the local economy, Lansky said.

"If the human culture isn't sustainable, then nothing is," he said.

An ideal forest is undisturbed, but low-impact forestry is about the real world, not theory.

Hundreds of Maine families make their livings from woodlots or invest in forest land as a hedge against hard times.

"When people do woodlot management, they're not doing it just for ecological reasons, they're doing it because they need the wood," Lansky said.

Economically, low-impact forestry makes sense in the same way blue chip stocks do - considering long-term value, and the principle applies regardless of a forest's size.

While liquidation harvesting - buying forest land, intensively harvesting it, then moving on - turns a quick profit, much of the forest's value is sacrificed to convenience.

"Well-stocked land is worth more than flattened land," Lansky said. "You think you're getting a lot of money, but what you're really doing is cutting into your capital - you're losing money in the long-term."

Lansky advocates calculating the future selling price of standing trees in addition to the value of any particular harvest. For example, a slow-growing species, such as rock maple, could someday have twice the market value of a faster-growing species, such as red maple.

"You're coming out way ahead if you do low-impact forestry," he said. "You'll have less money in your pocket, but more will be sitting on the stump."

But depending on the initial quality of the forest, it could take as many as 40 or 50 years before low-impact forestry practices start to turn a substantial profit for the landowner.

In Vermont, New York, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, small woodlot owners have formed cooperative associations, reducing their initial investment by sharing some of the costs of hiring foresters and buying harvesting equipment. Such associations have even banded together to purchase a sawmill or a drying kiln to increase the market value of their wood.

In Vermont, the cooperative even gets involved in sales and has shifted the workings of the lumber market. Rather than foresters growing specific types of wood to meet market demands, customers receive a list of available woods and make their selections from these native trees.

Lansky's book serves as a guide for small woodlot owners, with detailed advice from successful practitioners of low-impact forestry, including sample contracts, formulas for calculating the value of a woodlot and technical information about different harvesting systems.

In recent years, the Hancock County Planning Commission worked with the Low-Impact Forestry Project to obtain grant funding and demonstrate the methods at the Common Ground Fair and other gatherings. The group considered forming a woodlot cooperative and seeking certification from the Forest Stewardship Council for its membership, but a series of blows including the loss of grant money and recent criticism of other FSC certifications have slowed progress.

Lansky said he hopes the new book will inspire those involved with forest management to consider their impact. If a majority of Maine's small woodlot owners practiced low-impact forestry, the face of Maine's forest could be drastically changed.

"The most important thing to do at this point is to get examples going on the ground," he said.

Unless landowners alter their methods, Maine forestry cannot survive in the long-term, he said.

Lansky likes to paraphrase an ancient Chinese saying when he discusses the future of forestry: "Unless we change direction, we'll end up where we're headed."

Low-Impact Forestry is not yet available in stores. To buy a copy, contact the book's distributor Chelsea Green at (800) 639-4099 or send an e-mail to

Review by Jean English in the Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, May 2003.

Mitch Lansky is well known for his 1992 book, Beyond the Beauty Strip: Saving What's Left of Our Forests. Ten years later, he has come out with a book of articles offering alternatives to "so much of the forestry in our region of Maine, northern New England and the Maritimes" that is "frankly, shoddy." Chapters discuss the principles, goals, guidelines and standards of low-impact forestry; ecosystem management; wood harvesting technology; assessing soil damage; paying loggers; the economics of low-impact forestry; legal aspects, contracts and land protection; and more. The expertise and first-hand experiences of many foresters, loggers and woodlot owners give this book a sound basis for making recommendations about forestry.

"Low impact forestry reduces known harmful impacts so that after the cutting is done, there is still a functional forest," writes Lansky. He defines basic forestry terms and principles so that landowners, foresters and loggers will be able to communicate well with one another. A "Pesti-Side Bar" discusses the problems with using pesticides in forests and says that the guiding philosophy for dealing with pests in low-impact forestry "is Integrated Forest Management, rather than Integrated Pest Management." (Lansky's irrepressible humor is evident elsewhere, as when he says that the book is not a "complete academic treatise (treetise?)."

Even those who have nothing to do directly with forestry but are interested in biology will find the book fascinating. An interview about ecosystem management with Dr. David Perry by Barbara Alexander discusses the importance of microorganisms in forest ecosystems, for example. Some live in the soil, some on trees. Are they all essential or are some redundant? No one knows, says Perry, so he agrees with Aldo Leopold that we must "keep all the pieces."

We must exercise prudent behavior regarding forests "if our objective as a society is sustainability," he adds. His explanation that mycorrhizal fungi that live with trees (often 20 to 50 species on one tree) may impart "a great deal of evolutionary capability over a short period of time" to long-lived trees that do not evolve quickly is very interesting, and reason in itself to conserve forest ecosystems. Likewise, foliar endophytes (fungi that live with plant leaves) may enable trees to withstand tree-eating insects and diseases, since these fungi can evolve faster than trees and as fast as pathogens and insects. "It's an interesting thing," says Perry, "if you look at both of the major surfaces with which trees interact with the environment--the crown and the roots--both are characterized by symbioses with fungi."

Other interesting things in this book include Sam Brown's discussions of machinery and logging techniques. Brown is a fifth-generation logger and forester who is "using some of the wealth generated from those forests to do a little restitution" on his own 300 acres. Lansky's interview with logger Jimmy Potter, who had worked in the woods for some 50 years when he was interviewed, "can give us perspective on what we now perceive as 'normal,'" writes Lansky.

"We have been heartened to discover that in a forestry atmosphere that has been heavily polarized, Low-Impact Forestry has been a source of common ground," says Lansky. "Environmentalists, foresters, and loggers have enthusiastically discussed how to make this concept work. We're on to something good and want to share it." 'Something good' is an understatement for the contribution that Lansky and others have made through this book.


"Sustainable forestry is right where organic gardening was a generation ago--at the very beginning of working out the techniques and technologies that will let logging thrive at a scale appropriate to both the human and natural communities that depend on the forest. This book is at--if you will pardon the expression--the absolute cutting edge of that process."
  • Bill McKibben
    The sad thing is that Forestry is supposed to be Future Oriented - but when I see what traditional forestry is typically doing in Wisconsin, Maine, as well as all across the U.S. and Canada - most foresters have sold out to the fast buck. They justify it by keeping the big mills running and insuring their own next paycheck. Traditional forestry is based on times when good timber was "plentiful & cheap" and "trees are for the taking" and "if you don't take it - someone else will."

    There is a "New Forestry" today. A few people see it in every state that I have visited - just a few really understand it. Forest owners need to find this!

    Mitch Lansky clearly is one of the leaders of this movement. I met Mitch, and his friend Sam Brown, several years ago and learned a tremendous amount in a short time. These guys really do Low-Impact Forestry and have a lot of practical information to share.

    An important theme through this book is that excellent loggers are needed for Low-Impact Forestry. They need the best tools and training, but also must have an understanding of the importance of careful logging. A new attitude is needed in the timber industry that the Future really does Matter.

    The landowner, logger, forester - team approach is described as a required element of good forestry. Forest owners and loggers must understand the basics and believe in the long-term benefits of Low-Impact Forestry. A frustration is echoed that despite the high value of wood products in the marketplace - the logger and forest owner are the least rewarded for their investments and work.

    I highly recommend this book.

    Jim Birkemeier, Timber Green Forestry