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Timber! Maryland's leafy green economy

If a tree falls in a Maryland forest, does anyone know its value?

State Forester Steve Koehn threw back his head and laughed when asked that question. And then he jumped at the chance to shed some light on what he calls one of Maryland's best-kept secrets.

"Forest products are a $4 billion-a-year industry in Maryland," he said. "For comparison, seafood is a $950 million industry."

Koehn stood on a gentle slope in the middle of a towering stand of poplar trees, their golden leaves electrified by a bright fall sun. Eighteen months ago, loggers harvested that private plot in western Baltimore County, removing about half of the trees.

The landowner made money by selling the timber rights. Loggers got a paycheck. And sawmills turned the harvest into lumber, mulch and fuel.

Sounds simple.

It isn't.

While Maryland has 2.5 million acres of forest — 41 percent of the state's landmass — few of the tracts are expansive. The state owns about a half-million acres, about 211,000 of them contained in 10 state forests from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore.

The rest are a patchwork of privately held tracts averaging 35 acres each.

To gain access to the raw material that drives what is the state's fourth-largest industry, Koehn and his staff of foresters go door-to-door, preaching the gospel of a green, renewable economy.

"We're not mining the timber. We're managing it," Koehn likes to say. "We'll run out of loggers and sawmills long before we run out of wood."

That philosophy differs greatly from the one used by 19th-century loggers, who cleared forests that stood in the way of farms and construction. As a result, by the early 1900s, "the forests of Maryland consisted primarily of stumps, seedlings and saplings," according to the official history maintained by the state Forestry Service.

Gradually, however, the state shifted from being a passive custodian of forests to a manager of a rejuvenating resource.

Recently, Maryland has been growing 30 percent more wood than it cuts and producing 100 million board feet a year — or enough wood to build more than 3,300 average-size houses. The top five species milled are oak, poplar, maple, pine and cherry.

Forest products are the biggest industry in Western Maryland and No. 2 on the Eastern Shore behind poultry. Statewide, forestry supports more than 10,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

About 75 percent of timber harvested in Maryland is milled here at two dozen licensed sawmills. Much of it goes out of state for additional processing; the rest stays in Maryland, where companies like Edrich Lumber Inc. turn out boards, siding, wood chips and mulch.

"Nothing finds its way into the Dumpster. Everything is used," said Doug Wolinski, president of Edrich Lumber, a Windsor Mill sawmill that has been in business for 50 years.

Edrich is the largest sawmill in Baltimore County. It grew side-by-side with a dairy farm also owned by Edward Stanfield and his two sons, Edward Jr., who ran the farm, and Richard, who managed the lumber business.

The family farm still produces corn for Safeway and Wegman's. The lumberyard's 51 employees turn out 2 million board feet annually, plus mulch and wood chips. It also sells low-grade wood to pallet manufacturers.

"Until recently, it's been a lot of long, hard hours for minimal return," Wolinski said. "Lumber is a commodity-driven item. You have to stay in the market range or you'll have a lot of lumber sitting around. But things are starting to look a little better. In the last six to eight months, there's been a upturn in prices."

The housing market is only now showing signs of recovery, but that won't translate immediately into a return to good times for Edrich, Wolinski said.

"That's a year down the road for us," he said. "But that's good, that's fine. It has to start somewhere."

A robust secondary industry has grown up in Maryland around flooring, windows and house trim as people fix up rather than trade up, and Edrich is taking advantage of that market.

The quality of Maryland wood has long caught the eye of the construction and woodworking industries, Koehn said.

When organizers of the 1964-65 World's Fair needed pilings to anchor exhibits in a New York City tidal marsh, they bought sturdy loblolly pines from the Eastern Shore.

Craftsmen at Steinway & Sons in New York steam and bend yellow poplar from Maryland and Pennsylvania exclusively to form the bodies of concert grand pianos.

In the late 1980s, German woodworkers marketed furniture made with Western Maryland timber as "Savage River Red Oak," a tip of the hat to the state's largest forest.

Over the last decade, state lawmakers have approved a number of bills that spell out forest sustainability and preservation goals.

"The regulations in Maryland set high standards. You can't just whack and stack trees," said Bill Miles, lobbyist for the Association of Forest Industries. "The state has been a fair partner, and the General Assembly appreciates the value of the forest industry."

Maryland elected officials also have placed a high value on the ecological worth of trees, which clean the air, filter runoff and provide wildlife habitat, Miles said.

That's another reason Koehn acts as a go-between with loggers and landowners.

"A landowner not getting revenue and with taxes to pay is more inclined to sell the land for development. Instead of growing more trees, we're growing more houses," Koehn said. "The very best land use to create the very best water for the Chesapeake Bay is quality forestry."

But the forest industry has an image problem in many parts of the country, Koehn and Miles agreed.

"We cut trees. People don't like to see trees cut down, and yet they love their beautiful homes and they love to sit on their beautiful decks and they buy beautiful wooden furniture," Miles said.

He paused. "And they can't live without toilet paper."

To help offset the construction decline and the shift from paper to electronic publishing, Koehn is looking for markets for wood waste as a renewable fuel, such as universities, business complexes and hospitals.

"About 50 percent of sawmills in Maryland closed in the last decade," Koehn said. "In a depressed economy, we're trying to keep enough loggers busy to keep the sawmills from going out of business. When the market goes away, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

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