Forty years ago, Maine’s forests were devastated by a cyclical spruce budworm infestation that destroyed 25 million cords of white spruce and balsam fir trees. Forestry experts say another infestation is only a couple of years away, and while Maine is better prepared to respond, the economic impact would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Maine State Entomologist Dave Struble says, given its proximity to Maine, the spruce budworm infestation has technically already begun.

“If you’re talking about an upwelling of population,” Struble said. “It’s already here. On the New Brunswick border they’re beginning to get defoliation over into the shoulder of the panhandle over around Campbellton – I mean that’s 40 or 50 miles from, let’s say, Van Buren and Madawaska – it’s not that far.”

Speaking at a press event from the governor’s cabinet room, Struble and other members of the Maine Spruce Budworm Task Force said the state’s forestry industry has had plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of budworm moths, possibly within the next two years.

Gov. Paul LePage says that because of the task force’s prep,aration efforts, the industry will not experience the financial losses that were seen in the 1970s and 80s.

“It was devastating,” LePage said. “At the time I was in the industry. Millions of cords of wood were ruined and hundreds of millions of dollars were lost by the defoliation that the spruce budworm caused in our forests.”

The task force has compiled about 70 recommendations on how the state should prepare for the coming outbreak. Robert Wagner of the Cooperative Forestry Research unit at the University of Maine, says those recommendations include increased moth monitoring efforts by landowners, determining which areas of the state are appropriate for pesticide application and developing a more flexible forest management strategy.

“Some of the key recommendations for forest managers in the report addressing the issue across the northern half of the state include regularly communicating with government agencies and landowners to understand how the infestation is moving across the forest landscape, mapping the location, condition and concentration of high-risk forest stands, seeking and encouraging markets for low value trees,” says Wagner.

Unfortunately, the infusion of millions of cords of white spruce and balsam fir into the market couldn’t come at a worse time for the landowners trying to sell off the timber. Canadian sawmills and wood products industries will also be dealing with a glut of tinder derived from similar budworm diversion harvests. In fact, says Doug Denico of the Maine Forest Service, the last budworm outbreak collapsed parts of the forest products industry in Canada– leaving Maine harvesters with fewer options.

“There is hardly any demand compared to what it was for spruce and fir when compared to 10 years ago,” Denico said. “So they have all this wood that’s being defoliated and dying and they don’t know what to do with that. So the only chance we have of selling spruce and fir will be to our border mills the traditional mills that we’ve sold spruce and fir to. But other than that, they’ve got plenty of dying fir, north of the St. Lawrence and in parts of New Brunswick.”

Denico says private landowners will be taking the lead in making the investments necessary to protect their forests. However, Maine also controls about 600,000 acres of public reserve lands that are also at risk of budworm defoliation. Denico says the state is in the process of reviewing the feasibility of using pesticides on those public lands, particularly in areas that are not accessible by road.

If and when the state proposes a spraying program, Eliza Donoghue of the Natural Resources Council of Maine is among those who would take part in the required public review.

“Any public process is something that we would like to take part in,” Donoghue said. “I have also heard from Doug Denico and he mentioned briefly that there is some thought that spraying could occur on public reserve lands. That is something that NRCM has a significant interest in.”

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee told the task force members that they stand ready to assist in the budworm effort if emergency legislation is required.