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“A Look Back: 40 Years of Forestry with Bruce Spencer"
feature article for Downstream, Nov 2005
Image and text ©2005 Marcheterre Fluet
Word count: 1,637

 

 A Look Back: 40 Years of Forestry with Bruce Spencer

Many people harbor a vague dream of life in the Great Outdoors; a life of flannel shirts, fresh air, and freedom. Few such fantasies include hours spent in physical labor in a forest abuzz with mosquitoes and deerflies, or carpeted in three feet of snow.

For Bruce Spencer, who has spent 40 years as Chief Forester for the MDC/DCR, a life's work in the forest was not a fantasy; it was a plan.

"I was always interested in the forest," Bruce says. "No one taught me; it was something I always gravitated to, thinning and cutting trees. I was running my first timber sales on our family-owned land (in East Freetown, MA) by the time I was 15." The difficulties of maintaining high standards of forest management were immediately apparent: "The first guy who came to take the trees figured 'this kid doesn't know any different,' and tried to take some trees that weren't marked. I threw him off the job."

A few years later, Bruce added professional credentials to his practical experience by earning a Bachelor's Degree in Forest Management at UMass Amherst. During the summers of his Junior and Senior years he worked in the Pacific Northwest, first marking and thinning stands of ponderosa pine and fighting fire in northeastern Oregon, and then doing forest inventory work "on the wet side," at higher elevations in the Cascades. For the young man from Massachusetts, the two summers were instructive. " It was a very different culture: just sawmills, ranchers, foresters, and the Forest Service. Big forest fires. Isolated towns. Parties you wouldn't believe."

Bruce returned to UMass to take his Master's Degree, and while he was finishing his thesis (on the relationship of soil productivity on tree growth and water yields) the door to his professional future suddenly opened wide. MDC forester Fred Hunt decided to leave Massachusetts for a job with the US Forest Service. According to Bruce, "The MDC came to UMass looking for a forester to take Fred's place. I just happened to be at UMass getting my Master's degree, and I was the first person they bumped into. It was pure luck. Being in the right place at the right time."

It was a rapid transition: from 23-year-old graduate student to the only forester on about 84,000-acres. "I had only one brief day with Fred, seeing what was going on. And there was a lot going on! There were 3 or 4 sawmills working and several other logging jobs on the Quabbin and the Ware River, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to find them again." (Note: as anyone who has ever worked with Bruce will attest, this was probably the first and last time anyone has doubted his ability to find anything, anywhere, and by the best cross-country route.)

After that first and only day with Fred Hunt, Bruce hit the ground running. It was his responsibility to "mark" sales on all three watersheds - to choose each tree that would be included as part of a timber sale and mark it with paint - and to accurately estimate the volume of timber in each delineated sale area or "lot" before putting it out for bidding by private sawmills or loggers. After a lot was sold, it was up to Bruce to oversee the operation. Bruce's first Quabbin lots went out to bid two months after he started his new job.

The summer inventory work in the Pacific Northwest was good training for the 300-plus Continuous Forest Inventory Plots (CFI) at Quabbin; a grid of permanent plots that must be revisited and inventoried every 5 or 10 years. "That first year I started was the 5th year since Fred established the plots, so after the growing season was completed I started remeasuring all the plots. Not only to get an idea of what the whole watershed was like, but also to get out and see what was happening, see what the growth was, because CFI does tell you a lot about the growing conditions on different sites." Remeasuring the plots involved walking almost the entire watershed, in winter, and recording data on individual trees in 1/5-acre plots every half-mile. "It was a really good exercise," says Bruce. "I was done sometime in the spring."

There was always someone willing to test the Quabbin forester, especially in the early years. Bruce recalls the day a nearby landowner called to ask why the local brook was running brown. Bruce investigated and discovered that a logger on a Quabbin lot had ignored the forester's carefully laid-out routes. "He decided a shortcut would be to drive down the brook. It was incomprehensible! But I knew he'd never dealt with foresters before. I was bringing something new to him, but something very important to us. You don't run skidders in the brook, you don't bark up trees... I remember early on, when the skidder came on the scene and some loggers would say, 'That barking of trees is not a problem. The tree will heal up. Why are you worrying about that?' But as a forester, when you're marking, you take every tree you mark seriously. So you also take every damaged tree seriously. It's necessary to convey to the loggers what is important to you, and why; 'You're here to cut the logs but you've got to do it so we're left with a good resource, and with undamaged soils and residual trees.'"

Bruce's ability to convey the importance of excellent management practices extends far beyond the watershed boundaries and the private loggers who must continue to meet high standards in order to work on DCR lots. Field tours of Quabbin forestry operations, led by Bruce, are a valued component of Forestry classes at Yale and UMass. Foresters and researchers from Europe and Japan have made the trip to Quabbin - hardly on the beaten path of international tourism - to see firsthand what managment can accomplish when economic gain takes a backseat to long-term preservation and improvement of forest resources.

"Silviculture can be used in so many different ways, but I've always believed that in the purest sense it can be used to upgrade the forest and to make it more productive over time. For water quality, wildlife habitat, and forest products." Looking back, Bruce says, "In some cases it was easy. We had stands that had grown up in open conditions, like pasture pine stands, and by getting rid of the really deformed trees that had very little value and leaving the better trees, we gave the forest a chance. Today those stands are unrecognizable, becaue we left good trees to grow. Many of those loggers understood what we were trying to accomplish, and they believed that someday, hopefully, they would come back and cut better trees. Without their skill and their effort, we couldn't have accomplished what we did.

"I look at some of the sites where I put these guys early on, where we were doing thinnings on some difficult places, and I don't think we could do the same thing today and do it as well, because we don't have that small equipment; the portable sawmills and the crawler-tractors that preceded the skidders. Back then they could utilize the really low-quality pine because there was still a market for the box pine and for posts.

"Nothing was perfect, and we all made mistakes. But nothing is perfect. And we've obviously learned a lot more. Soils were always an important consideration; even a crawler-tractor can cause problems in soft soils, and you can't just pick up a sawmill and move it and then bring it back later to finish the job. So we'd plan jobs to have work going on in the wet areas when the ground would be frozen, and have dry areas to work on when we knew the loggers would be running into the spring season. But early on we weren't taught anything about salamanders and reptiles and vernal pools, so there's been a lot of new knowledge come about."

Bruce has worked with all but the first Superintendent of Quabbin, and says, "I wasn't given much instruction and I didn't need a whole lot. I was self-motivated. The only land management plan we had at the beginning was Fred Hunt's, and then I wrote the second one in the 70's." Over a career of forty years managing one forest - very unusual in professional forestry circles, even in the Forest Service - inevitable controversies have arisen. Two that come immediately to mind are the proposed Connecticut River Diversion, and the Quabbin Deer Hunt. "What helped me in dealing with both bureaucracy and with loggers, is that my focus was on the resource and on getting the job done. I've worked with a lot of skilled people and I've worked with lots of really tough people. My energy and talk always focused on the trees, the soils; 'this is what we have to do.' There are so many ways to approach things," Bruce insists. "We are all thrown monkey wrenches and road blocks, all the time. You don't give up. You just think and you find a way. There are infinite ways to try to accomplish something.

"What has served me well, and serves all our foresters well, is recognizing that we're working with this wonderful resource that in most cases we had nothing to do with establishing; it came before us. We are aware of that and of the need to be sensitive and try to accomplish our goals without taking too much from the forest. How much to leave and how much to
take - that's what sustainability is all about.

"My personal view of forestry hasn't really changed. It's trying to leave things better instead of worse. That's the goal."
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Image and text ©2005 Marcheterre Fluet.  Unauthorized use prohibited.  Thank you.