‘Battle of the Budworm’ left vivid memories

budworm journal with quoteBy Roberta Scruggs, MFPC communications director

Our Landowner Committee’s explosive reaction when I mentioned I’d had lunch with Dick Barringer was somewhere between a gasp of amazement and a snort of contempt. Barringer was Gov. Jim Longley’s Conservation commissioner during the height of Maine’s last budworm infestation and he was not, to put it mildly, popular within the state’s forest industry. (See budworm news clips from 1975-76 below right.)

But if you want to learn, you can’t just talk to people who think as you do. So I’m seeking out those who played a role in Maine’s budworm history as well as those who witnessed or researched budworm outbreaks. I hope you will send me your stories, photos and/or thoughts about lessons learned. I’m already convinced Bob Wagner of UMaine, a leader of the Maine Spruce Budworm Task Force, was not exaggerating when he subtitled his spruce budworm presentation: “How it shaped everything in Maine forestry for the past 40 years.”

Most Mainers barely remember the last infestation and/or have no idea what budworm is, how it threatens our forests or that it’s coming back. To enlist their support for the effort ahead, we need to help them understand how budworm shaped not only Maine’s forests, but its history, economy, laws and culture.

On Oct. 1, 2012, when I started at MFPC, the words “spruce budworm” rang only a very distant bell with me, even though I moved here in 1977, when the last infestation was in full swing. But I can tell you the day – Oct. 10, 2012 – when the spruce budworm threat became real to me.

I was touring the north woods with Executive Director Patrick Strauch, Mark Dot of Plum Creek, then MFPC board president, and LUPC Director Nick Livesay. We stayed overnight at Seven Islands Thoroughfare Brook camp and after supper I talked with forester Bill Brown. He started work for Seven Islands in 1973, just before the budworm infestation took a dramatic turn for the worse in July 1974 as a massive cloud of moths from Canada were blown here. Because of prevailing wind patterns, budworm moths in Quebec usually wind up in New Brunswick and Maine. Massive “in-flights” can abruptly alter an outbreak’s severity, which happened here in 1974.

By 1975, not only Maine, but “the entire region from Ontario to Newfoundland was involved in the largest spruce budworm outbreak ever recorded.” (The Spruce Budworm Outbreak in Maine in the 1970’s

Bill Brown described it so vividly I could almost see the dying firs turn red and the bombers spraying in an effort to save them. I could imagine the frantic struggle to build back-country roads so trees could be harvested before they died and I shared Bill’s amazement when the infestation abruptly ended in 1986.

“There was a spray program scheduled and all the entomologists and people from the spray program went out and they said, ‘Where did they all go?’” Bill said. “It was like the budworm had disappeared right off the face of the earth – the whole population just collapsed. Nobody had predicted that or expected that.”

By then, I was totally hooked, but Bill’s final words just increased my determination to learn more about budworm.

“It would be sad at this point in my life and my career if we had a terrible infestation again,” he said. “It’s almost like all of that work was – well, not for nothing – but for something totally out of your control.”

Lots of discussion, research and planning has taken place since then and the draft of the SBW task force report is out for review. But I’m also looking backward, taking the advice of my father-in-law who said, “Don’t discover what someone’s discovered before you.” So far, I’ve discovered Eastern spruce budworm is, as one researcher noted, “one of the more thoroughly studied insects that defoliate trees in North America.” That’s because it takes away something that we need – wood – so we’ve searched hard for ways to stop or mitigate the devastation.

We’ve learned budworm infestations go back a long, long way. Through macrofossil analyses at a bog in Saguenay, Quebec, Canadian researchers have tracked budworm back more than 8,000 years. Its Maine history probably started much later since until 1,000 to 1,500 years ago, spruce and fir were limited to Maine’s coastal areas while hemlocks dominated interior forests. Then the climate cooled, spruce-fir expanded and hemlocks receded at what was, for a natural phenomenon, breathtaking speed. In just three or four centuries Maine essentially became a spruce-fir state.

Through tree ring studies of virgin stands and the beams in historic homes, budworm outbreaks in eastern Quebec have been charted since 1577. Researchers here found infestations in Big Reed Forest Reserve in 1709, 1762, 1808, 1914 and 1976 and other infestations are noted in historical accounts.

“One early letter in 1818 mentioned the great destruction of spruce east of the Penobscot River, which is believed to have been killed by the spruce budworm,” Dr. Henry Peirson, Maine’s first state entomologist, reported for Philip Coolidge’s History of the Maine Woods. “In 1880 another series of outbreaks is reported to have killed one billion feet of spruce along the Allagash and tributaries of the St. John, and caused great destruction in north Somerset County.”

When I wondered why there were no reports of dead fir, Dave Struble, Maine’s current state entomologist, emailed, “I suspect that folks didn’t report the fir mortality because spruce was the conifer of commerce (vs. fir – the weed).”

By the 1909-1918 infestation, that attitude had changed dramatically because technology had been developed to make paper from wood. In 1900, Maine had about 35 paper mills and forests were changing. “As spruce has been a favorite wood for pulp, its removal has favored the balsam, which is coming in rapidly everywhere and crowding out the spruce,” a New Brunswick forester noted in 1909.

Conditions were right for a severe budworm infestation. “The browning of the spruce and fir needles was first conspicuous in the winter of 1916-17,” Coolidge wrote, “and the dying continued for two or three years. Perhaps 40 percent of the spruce and 75 percent of the fir, or over half of the spruce and fir together, in the whole state was killed.”

Just as in the 1970s outbreak, there was a scramble to harvest before the trees died, “but the epidemic swept through the state far too fast to be combated by such means as cutting of infested areas.” About 27.5 million cords of wood were lost.

“Oddly enough the result of the epidemic was to increase the proportion of fir, from perhaps only 20 or 40% to fully 50%,” Coolidge wrote.

By the 1970s, the forests were full of over-mature fir, which set the stage for the “Battle of the Budworm” that Bill Brown’s cohorts remember so vividly. Many joke – darkly – that they’d hoped to retire before the budworm returned. Despite all that’s changed since the last infestation, they know one thing remains the same – the budworm itself.

“Some people are saying we’ve got a young healthy forest so we’re OK – No!” Bill said emphatically. “Fir is fir and if the budworm comes, who knows?”