Don’t ask forester Bill Brown about “his” road

Bill Brown, a forester for Seven Islands for more than three decades.
Bill Brown, a forester for Seven Islands for more than three decades.

If you’re just west of Big Eagle Lake and paying close attention, you may notice you’re driving down “Bill’s Road,” also known as “Chemin de Bill.” But don’t mention that road to the man for whom it’s named – forester Bill Brown of Seven Islands Land Company – you’ll just embarrass him.

“Bill is humble. He never calls it Bill’s Road,” said co-worker Shawn Bugbee. “There are signs on both ends of it that say Bill’s Road, but Bill always calls it the Russell Stream Road.”

The Maine Forest Products Council named Brown the “Outstanding Forester” of 2012, but he’s been making his mark on his colleagues, his company and the 300,000 acres he supervises for the nearly four decades.

“To us he’s the quintessential forester,” said Steve Schley, president of Pingree Associates, the family group that owns Seven Islands. “He’s lived it, breathed it and walked it. He’s seen it all.”

Bills_Labeled_Map_webBrown grew up in Dover-Foxcroft and knew he wanted to work in the woods. He could have followed his two older brothers to the University of Maine, but he “wanted to be different,” so he attended Paul Smith College in upstate New York, graduating in 1973. That summer he got an unexpected call from John Sinclair, then president of Seven Islands.  Brown wasn’t looking for a job, but when Sinclair offered him one in the Greenville district, he answered,  “Yeah, I’ll give it a try.”

“And here I am 39 years later. So I guess I liked it,” Brown jokes. “I like the work. I’ve been fortunate with Seven Islands. Obviously this is quite isolated here and they give you a lot of freedom. They say this is what we want to do and you just go do it. I’ve been fortunate to practice forest management all these years.”

Brown’s view of the North Woods stretches far beyond that seven-mile road that leads between the logging camps where he’s spent much of his life. He watched fir trees turn “all red as far as you could see” during the spruce budworm infestation and lived through what he calls the “clear-cut wars.” He’s seen the deer herd in his district boom and bust. He vividly remembers the day a storm leveled 500 acres of mature trees “to the bare ground” on the east side of Big Eagle Lake and he celebrated the day 33 years later when that ridge had enough trees to thin.

“You do see the results, the impact you have on the landscape,” Brown said. “The most important thing is just to take pride in your work – know what your goals are and take pride in your work.”

Brown is very proud that Seven Islands was the first and the largest ownership to become certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The company’s nomination for the MFPC award stressed that Brown “was integral in Seven Islands foray into certification . . . Bill has been an excellent practitioner of the concepts through the years. The process benefited to a large degree because of Bill’s commitment.”

He’s also proud of his relationship with staff of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which runs through his district. The  waterway is “just great,” he says, adding that he has “done the full distance a couple of times.”

Award Winners 2012“Everything we do we have to consider: What is the impact going to be on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway?” Brown said. “We have been able to maintain a good relationship with the waterway. And that’s the way the family wants it. That’s the way the company wants it.”

Brown is manager of Seven Islands’ Ashland West Unit, while Bugbee, 32, manages the Ashland East Unit. They clearly work well together, but Bugbee smiles when asked about his first impression of Brown when he started work as a summer intern.

“Well, when I was in college he was pretty intimidating really,” Bugbee said. “I think Bill has opened up a lot more of the past 10 years since I’ve known him, but he’s always been a man of few words. He would talk to me, but it was all business all the time almost.”

Although Brown’s words were few, they were valuable for Bugbee and many others, especially in a profession where planning is so vital.

“Bill is super organized,” Bugbee said. “Working side by side with him, creating our plans for the year, he taught me a lot of organizational skills along with a vast amount of forestry skills.”

The isolation of the woods meant young foresters moved on quickly as they married and had children. Brown stayed on, heading to his home in Ashland only on weekends. But the people who worked for and with him can now be found throughout the company,  including Schley, Seven Islands President John McNulty and Vice President Chris Nichols.

“I think the people he trained are his greatest legacy,” Bugbee said.

McNulty went to work for Brown in 1978, during the height of the budworm infestation. For 2½ years, they lived together in a one-room camp with gaslights, no running water and a cooler instead of a refrigerator.  Only a divider separated their sleeping quarters and the kitchen/communal area, which had a woodstove and a picnic table.

“He and I got to know each other very well during that time,” McNulty said. “He was my supervisor, but he also provided me great guidance as a young forester. He was not too overbearing, but he’s always been a stickler for the policy of the company, so that kind of hung with me. As far as a young forester just learning the ropes, there was probably no better place to learn. It was sort of like forestry through immersion.”

McNulty describes Brown as trustworthy, honest, hard working, focused on quality and determined to do the best job possible. “He’s rock solid,” McNulty said. “He’s like this anchor we have out in the middle of the woods.”

Their relationship is still important to McNulty, who said whenever he needs to “get grounded,” he spends a few days in the woods with Bill – at a much-upgraded camp at Thoroughfare Brook.

“He’s my go-to guy. I really value his insight,” McNulty said. “We’re always comfortable sitting down and talking openly about what needs to be done and how we can improve things.”

Over the years, Brown has seen a lot of foresters come and go, but says there is no one type of person who does the job well. It’s not a matter of personality. Very outgoing people succeed and so do “real private, quiet people. I myself am quite reserved, very reserved,” he said. “It takes someone who likes being in this environment. You have to get used to being alone a lot of the time . . . There are days when it’s cold or hot and the black flies are terrible. You get used to it. I don’t know if you enjoy it all the time, but you do get used to it.

A mature forester learns to take a long, long view of his work. Young foresters want to change the world – if not today then tomorrow.

“If they have a specific operation they’re looking at and they’re frustrated, they’re going to go back they next day and straighten it all out. And I say, ‘Just don’t get overly excited. Think of what we’re trying to do long-term here.’” Brown said. “That’s just part of maturing as a forester.”

Still, he laughs again when asked if the one trait every forester must have is patience

“I’m not super patient, but I can be stubborn,” he said. “There’s a subtle difference there.”

What makes an exceptional forester, he believes, is something that can’t be taught. Behind Brown’s businesslike approach is the conviction that forestry must be more than just a job.

“It becomes part of your life. It becomes part of you,” Brown said. “You have the opportunity to look back 10, 20, 30 even 40 years, and say, ‘Yeah, that is what we hoped for.’ And that’s a long way to look back.”