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December 9, 2013

Timber manager Roger Milliken balances commerce, conservation

PHOTo / Tim greenway
PHOTo / Tim greenway
Roger Milliken, director of his family’s timber company, Baskahegan Co., spent four years as chairman of the board of The Nature Conservancy.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Roger Milliken walks in the woods near his home in Cumberland.

Roger Milliken's career timeline:

1975

Graduates Harvard University cum laude with a degree in English

1983

Joins the family's timber management firm, Baskahegan Co., in Brookton

1986

Becomes the director of the Maine Forest Products Council. His leadership is credited with the passage of a bipartisan Forest Practices Act. Remains director until 1996.

1989

Becomes president of Baskahegan Co.

1994

Founded, then chaired (until 1999) the Maine Forest Biodiveristy Project, a collaborative of 100 people from industry, academia and conservation groups that established 100,000 acres of reserves on state land

1995

Becomes director of Merimil Holdings LLC

1995

Begins nine years of service on the board of Land for Maine's Future.

1996

Begins nine years as trustee for The Nature Conservancy Maine chapter

2000

Joins The Nature Conservancy's global board of directors, a position he holds for 12 years

2000

Co-chairs the Maine Forever campaign, which raised $35 million and protected 185,000 acres along the St. John River

2002

Co-chairs the Katahdin Forest campaign, which protected 295,000 acres abutting Baxter State Park

2004

Leads effortsfor Baskahegan Co. forests to become certified by Forest Stewardship Council

2008

Begins three-year chairmanship of The Nature Conservancy's board of directors

2011

Becomes director of Milliken & Co.

2013

Releases Forest for the Trees, a comprehensive history of Baskahegan Co. and its journey to sustainability

When Roger Milliken first came to Maine in the early 1980s, he had no idea that he'd be running one of the state's most successful timber companies for the next three decades.

His assignment was to write a book about the family company, Baskahegan — named for one of Maine's remote lakes in Washington County — which owned more than 100,000 acres of mostly cut-over spruce acreage since the 1920s.

Milliken became so interested in the project that he ended up proposing himself as the company's manager — a tough sell since the parent company, Milliken & Co., the nation's largest privately owned textile manufacturer — had a strict policy against hiring family members.

But he got the job, and with it a formidable challenge — how to create a profitable company that didn't end up depleting the forest resource, a practice traditional in Maine since the first days of log-driving on the Penobscot and other major rivers.

In a recent interview at his home in Cumberland, Milliken reflected on half a lifetime spent building a business in one of the state's most job-scarce counties, balanced with a passionate interest in conservation and global stewardship that has only grown with the years. It's passion that brought him to the helm of one of the most respected environmental groups — The Nature Conservancy — where he was chairman of the board from 2008 to 2011.

Early days

Milliken's love of conservation isn't genetic. He frankly admits that the original land purchases made by his grandfather, Gerrish Milliken, were real estate investments only. No one had given much thought to how the land should be managed over the long term. And, in the early days, absentee ownership had its disadvantages as interlopers simply helped themselves.

Milliken recalls a story early in the company's history when management decided to give the land a rest after heavy cutting.

"But from what we heard later, cutting continued right through the Second World War and after," Milliken says. "Money was coming in, but it never made its way to the corporate office."

As Milliken became more familiar with the Baskahegan land and its natural diversity, he directly confronted the issue facing all forest landowners. Is it really possible to maintain, or increase, the value of the forest while still earning a return on investment?

Milliken eventually found out that it was, but only by planning long term and making the kind of strategic investments that would be routine for a manufacturer, but were rare among forest landowners.

It involved, for instance, building a well-drained system of permanent haul roads throughout the acreage, which had since grown to 118,000 acres through selective land swaps and purchases. The all-weather surfaces replaced the traditional swaths cut into the soil that flooded in spring and left scars on the land for years after they were abandoned.

And it involved the practice of silviculture — a branch of forestry then standard for European landowners, who had to contend with limited landholdings, but still unusual in the United States. Milliken convinced the Baskahegan board to hire a new graduate of the University of Maine School of Forestry, Chuck Gadzik, as its resident forester.

Gadzik, who later served as chief of the Maine Forest Service during the King administration, had studied forest management in Sweden, and organized a tour there for Baskahegan officials to examine pioneering sustainable harvesting methods. The new regime was applied in Sweden as a national program on forestland that in many ways resembled Maine woodlands. But employing the sustainable techniques in the Maine woods aroused some resistance.

"Some of our contractors couldn't understand why we were leaving some of the biggest trees uncut," Milliken says. "It just didn't make any sense to them."

What Baskahegan was doing, however, was creating in effect 80 different forest parcels on its acreage, reflecting the estimated 80 years it takes to grow a mature red spruce — the most valuable species for timber in northern and eastern Maine. By varying tree removal in different patterns across the landscape, Baskahegan could also ensure immunity from the consequences of infestations from the spruce budworm, which had thrived in the even-aged forests created by intensive pulpwood logging for the paper mills.

It also created much more diverse habitat for wildlife. Milliken says he's pleased that rare migratory species of warblers can be found in abundance on land that's being actively harvested.

Much of his experience is described in an updated version of the original Baskahegan book, Forest for the Trees, released this year, which adds 30 years about the company's contemporary growth to the original history. In it, he describes the new strategy: "Rather than a blanket of fir maturing at the same time, the future Baskahegan forest would be a quilt, the shapes of the individual pieces determined by features like streams and roads, their ages varied by our management."

A broader view

That "future forest" is now close to reality, which means the company can count on a steady supply of timber, and income, without the boom-and-bust cycles that plague traditional logging operations.

But for Milliken, it's clearly not just about timber operations. The conjunction of birds and trees in his book provides a clue to Milliken's broader interests, which include conservation on a global scale.

From 2000-2011, he served on the national board of The Nature Conservancy, including the last three years as chairman of the board. TNC appealed to him, in contrast to other conservation groups, because "it follows the science, not some pre-conceived agenda."

Milliken helped TNC's Maine chapter raise $35 million to purchase the headwaters of the St. John River in 1998 — at the time, the largest private conservation project in the country — and stayed on because he was so impressed with the organization's scope and vision.

TNC now has chapters in all 50 states and 34 countries, steadily increasing its range and abilities to protect natural landscapes. Yet Milliken, who served as TNC chairman during the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, says that even an organization of "thoughtful, smart, committed people from all around the world" may still be "wholly inadequate" in the face of global issues such as climate change. He learned about "how complicated conservation is," but without losing his commitment to practicing it himself as a business manager.

A practicing Buddhist, Milliken tries to balance commercial interests, land stewardship and his religious belief that all life is interwoven. He believes he has achieved such a balance at least on a portion of the Washington County landscape.

He acknowledges that, if you want to make a quick buck, cutting as many trees as possible and selling them to the highest bidder can still be attractive to landowners. But the result is a devalued landscape that doesn't reflect what he sees as the Maine forest's pivotal role not only in defining the state, but ensuring its future.

Ask about relations with Washington County neighbors, he says, "I think they appreciate what we've been able to do over time. There are examples all around us of landowners who do it a different way."

Milliken regrets that the war of words — and statewide referendums — about the North Woods in the 1990s has left such a vacuum of sound policy behind it. Milliken had been active in the campaign that led to the 1989 Forest Practices Act, the first law to set statewide management standards. At the time when the first "Ban Clearcutting" referendum was proposed, he served both on the boards of conservation groups and the Maine Forest Products Council. The two sides negotiated the ultimately unsuccessful Forest Compact, at the behest of then Gov. Angus King as a compromise, but he says they clearly didn't trust each other. He remembers going to board meetings amid a crisis atmosphere, with each group wondering how he could possibly be involved with the opposition.

"There is no middle ground to this day, and that's unfortunate," Millken said.

Missed opportunities

It didn't have to be like that, he says. The late 1980s were a fertile time for cooperative efforts on forest conservation. Congress, at the urging of then Sens. George Mitchell and William Cohen, had created the Northern Forest Lands Council. The state commissioned the Environmental Priorities Project, which Milliken calls one of the best-balanced plans of its time.

We can't continue to avoid the tension between economic and environmental interests much longer, he believes. For instance, he's taken part in the debate over wind power in remote parts of the state, including Washington County.

One of the First Wind projects, on Bowers Mountain, would be clearly visible from Baskahegan Lake, a cherished retreat in the heart of his company's landholdings. Yet, unlike many from the area, he testified in favor of the wind turbines because of their contributions in mitigating climate change.

He explains that, as TNC chairman, he had just toured West Virginia's coal country, "where they're really destroying mountains for stripped-mined coal, and changing an entire landscape forever. How could I be against wind turbines that will be with us only a short time?"

He applies similar reasoning to the National Park issue that continues to raise hackles in the Millinocket region, where the mills are mostly gone but their economic replacement is not yet in sight.

Milliken acknowledges that the map presented a generation ago by Restore for a 3.2 million acre park put a chill into the hearts of forest landowners. But the present idea by Roxanne Quimby for a 75,000 acre donation to the National Park Service east of Baxter State Park, and spanning the Penobscot River's East Branch, presents no such threat, he says.

National parks and national recreation areas are a proven source of economic benefits to their regions, and Maine isn't likely to be an exception, he notes. Milliken thinks the park could be an asset, and, for those who question whether it's worthy of such a designation, he says the best step is to support a National Park Service study.

"Do the study first. That should answer the question," he says.

One need only to look to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island as an example of the economic impacts.

"It's a robust revenue generator," he says, something that could also prove true of a North Woods park. "There will be more jobs than the forest industry will ever be able to provide again."

Milliken believes that there's far too much "either/or" thinking among forest industries and their critics, and not enough emphasis on "both/and" possibilities. He thinks Baskahegan is an example of how seemingly conflicting priorities can be reconciled, but he also understands the skepticism of those who are still trying to make a living in Maine's rural counties.

"A way of life is disappearing there, if it isn't gone already," he says. "It will be hard for people to feel heard" when something as radically different as a national park is being discussed.

"But eventually we have to start looking toward the future," he says. "It's the only direction we have."

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