How will Maine respond to the next spruce budworm outbreak?

[Photo credit: Jym St. Pierre]

How will Maine respond to the next spruce budworm outbreak?
by Jim Frick, Sierra Club Maine Executive Committee

If you were living in Maine in the 1970s and/or 1980s, you probably remember a whole lot of attention being paid to a small insect—the notorious spruce budworm.  During those years of infestation, Maine literally waged a war against the budworm—spraying millions of acres a year (over 18 million acres in all) with a variety of chemical pesticides.

The infestation also led to a major road building effort for salvage operations. To recover the significant cost of spraying and road building, paper companies employed clear-cutting operations–leaving large swaths of the Maine Woods barren. By the early 1980s, close to 100,000 acres a year were being clear-cut in the state.

The massive salvage operations returned large profits for the companies, but also fostered a public outcry led by the environmental community. As a result, in 1989, Maine passed the landmark Forest Practices Act, with solid regulations on clear-cutting.

The ultimate effect of the spruce budworm outbreak was dramatic—it essentially created a new Maine Woods and a new awareness of the need to protect it.

Today, there is concern that a new spruce budworm outbreak is imminent. Our neighbors to the north in Quebec are already experiencing a major infestation, with more than 8 million acres of forest affected. History tells us that it’s just a matter of time before we’ll start to see gray and defoliating trees here in Maine.

The spruce budworm is actually a native species in Maine. The larvae emerge from hibernation in spring—feeding on buds and shoots. A mature larva is a brownish caterpillar, growing to about one inch in length and feeding on new tree growth  (although they will feed on spruce, they actually prefer fir). In July, the larvae pupate. In 10 days, moths emerge and take to flight—and there the big trouble begins. Under normal conditions the moths will fly 10 miles or so. But under extreme weather conditions, the moths can travel up to 100 miles and begin another life cycle of destruction on a new forest.

Spruce budworms are always present in the Maine Woods, but their numbers are small, probably averaging five per tree. However, about every 40 years, for reasons still not known, something happens to cause the budworm population to explode, leaving dying trees in its wake. It’s been 40 years since the start of the last outbreak—we’re due.

So will the new outbreak be as devastating as the last? And how is Maine going to respond? Will we once again see large-scale spraying and salvage operations?

Because of the dramatic change in the ecology and ownership of the Maine Woods, as well as the legislation now controlling forest practices, many experts believe a new spruce budworm outbreak is likely to cause significantly less damage and foster a more measured response than the infestation of the 70s and 80s.

One thing to consider is Maine Forest Service data showing that the volume of spruce and fir is about half of what it was in the 1970s. And much of the spruce and fir that is there is still not mature. That means less food for the budworm.

In terms of land ownership—in the 1970s, the big paper and timber companies owned the majority of the forest. But much of that land has now been sold off to investment companies or land conservation groups. Many experts think it’s unlikely that those groups would be willing to pay the extremely high cost of spraying to control the budworm. 

Salvage is a different issue, however. The forestry roads in the Maine Woods are already in place. That would certainly provide incentive to get budworm infested lumber out and to market. And there could potentially be pressure to weaken the Forest Practices Act and its sound regulations on clear-cutting to aid any salvage effort.

A task force, which includes the Maine Forestry Department, the University of Maine, the Forest Products Council, and landowners, has been established to propose options for addressing the potential budworm outbreak. The Keeping Maine’s Forest Collaborative, of which the Sierra Club is a member and co-founder, has been asked to provide input and review any proposals. Maine Activist Network member Ken Cline is our representative on this project.

The Sierra Club’s Maine Woods Activist Network is committed to making sure that any response to the next spruce budworm outbreak is environmentally sound. Our activist team will stay on top of all developments, including any possible legislation that would weaken our current forest practices.