A wildlife biologist mourns the passing of a majestic cedar grove.
By Ron Joseph
Rooted firmly in the moist soils near the shore of Elm Pond, twelve miles northwest of Moosehead Lake, stands an old growth cedar grove. Many of the trees are more than three hundred years old.
I visited the cedars with the landowner and his forester. In the 1970s, the grove became a state designated significant deer wintering area, which means the landowner cannot cut the trees without a written harvest plan that also meets the needs of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. My job as a state biologist was to determine if the deer still wintered beneath the trees. The fate of these trees hinged on their presence.
Stepping into this primeval forest was like stepping back in time. I was in awe of the largest cedars I’d ever seen in Maine. The three of us linked arms and could barely wrap around one of the largest trees, some of which stood eighty feet.
I first developed a love affair with old growth trees after seeing my only king’s pine in a hollow near Maine’s Chesuncook Lake in 1988. A retired game warden guided me to the giant white pine branded in the late 1700s by a British timber surveyor. Trees branded with the king’s broad arrow were a message to colonists: “These trees are reserved by the King of England for the Royal British Navy.” Being forbidden to cut branded pines became one of the rallying points for colonists during the American Revolution.
Royal thoughts of a different nature occupied my mind as I walked among the magnificent cedars. Mesmerized, I wondered what stories these elder citizens of the Maine woods could share, if they could speak. Native woodland caribou, extinct in Maine by the early 1900s, undoubtedly rubbed their antlers on the stringy bark of these trees.
These trees were two hundred years old when the last Maine mountain lion was killed in 1937 near Little St. John Lake, thirty miles north of Elm Pond. How many mountain lions, I wondered, hid in the limbs of these trees waiting to pounce on a caribou calf? What other lessons could these trees teach about Maine’s early natural history?
This cedar grove has survived ice storms, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, and fluctuating timber prices. But the old growth cedars may not stand much longer. I could find no evidence of deer. The present owner of the trees operates a prosperous cedar log home company. The trees have outlived many “owners,” but they will not outlive this one.
If the cedars are solid, the wood will be sawed and planed into uniform logs. Some will be used to construct seasonal cabins on remote Maine ponds. If the wood is hollow or honeycombed, it will be made into cedar shingles. Perhaps some of the shingles will end up on a garage or doghouse in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
To make myself feel better, I rationalized that forests are a renewable resource. When these trees are gone, I told myself, a new forest will appear — thus perpetuating the timeless cycle of renewal.
But in my heart, I felt a kinship to this irreplaceable special, natural area. These trees are much more worthy of state landmark status than the grotesque statue of Paul Bunyan overlooking the Penobscot River in Bangor.
By late afternoon, the forester and landowner placed a three foot-by-three foot timber harvest map on the hood of my truck. Using a Biltmore stick, hand calculator, and pencil during his hike, the forester opened a field notebook to show me his calculations in board feet, cords, and the trees’ monetary value. All of the old cedars had “reached their economic maturity,” according to the forester, and therefore needed to be harvested.
Grief overwhelmed me. I was an accessory to a pending crime against nature. What right did I have deciding the trees’ fate? After all, I had spent a mere four hours with these solemn giants. They had stood their ground for more than 2.6 million hours, and counting. Many of these living monuments took root before George Washington became president.
I struggled signing the state-landowner agreement form certifying that deer no longer wintered beneath the stand. How ironic that these trees, also known as eastern arborvitae (trees of life), having flourished amid unimaginable hardships for three centuries, will forfeit their life for log cabins, shingles, storage chests, and home siding. The trees deserved a better fate. I now understand why the largest trees make the loudest groans when they fall.