René Germain Brings Research on Working Forests Back to Vermont
Undergraduate alum profile
- By Shari Halik
René Germain’s (FOR ’83) ambition is to help people and working forests. He conducts applied research that keeps him in the woods and working closely with the very forest practitioners who benefit from his research findings. As professor of forest management and operations at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) since 1998, René’s research on changes and challenges to sustaining non-industrial private forestland, or family forests, and a viable logging and forest products industry is a lot about lessening those challenges for the people of the Northern Forest region.
“My applied research has allowed me to pursue projects in the Northern Forest and to go beyond the boundaries of New York State and into Vermont,” shares René, who grew up in Vermont and has a special attachment to the state and its land and people.
Much of his research is funded by the Northeastern States Research Cooperative (NSRC), a partnership of the USDA Forest Service and the state universities of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. René’s earliest NSRC-funded project in 2005 was the first time anyone had used GIS (geographic information systems) technology to map sawmill wood procurement areas, or “woodsheds,” of the Northeast. René, colleague Eddie Bevilacqua, and doctoral student Nate Anderson investigated the trend of forest parcelization into smaller tracts and its impacts on American and Canadian sawmills and their woodsheds—how far mills are going for wood and how wood quality might be changing.
As a former woodlands manager and wood procurement forester for Ward Lumber of Jay, New York, René knows firsthand how difficult it is to get logs to the mill. He and his research collaborators examined factors that might be making it more challenging for mills and loggers to stay in business.
The research team discovered that parcelization of land had no bearing on woodshed distance or quality of wood. However, quality and size of logs were definitely diminishing, probably the result of past heavy removal of high quality timber, suggests René.
Study outcomes revealed that northeastern mills can range up to 200 miles or more to meet wood requirements. Nate overlapped mill woodsheds on maps to delineate hot zones for wood procurement. Maine and then Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom stood out for softwood and the Connecticut River Valley, for hardwood. “Nate’s findings can help resource managers better estimate the status of the wood supply in the Northeast,” points out René.
This work grew into René’s next project in Vermont where he looked at a gradient of wood procurement pressures across four northern counties in 2009. He was curious if procurement pressure by mills had an impact on the quality of family forest management. Surprisingly, he found no significant impacts, but he discovered through interviews with family forest owners and field surveys of their forestlands, conducted by his master’s students Neal Maker and Byran Ellis, that landowner enrollment in the Vermont Current Use Value Appraisal tax abatement program was notably related to better forest stocking and practices that protect water quality.
René’s study is one of the first to evaluate the Vermont current use value program through in-person surveys of landowners and woodlands. His results have assisted Vermont’s Wood Utilization Specialist Paul Frederick (FOR ’82) and Vermont county foresters in their work with forest landowners in the state.
“René is one of the few researchers in the Northeast focusing on forest operations. His work on sustained yield management in Vermont, particularly with respect to implementation of BMPs (Best Management Practices), is proving very helpful in evaluating our own monitoring efforts,” states Paul.
As part of a 2013 NSRC-funded study, René is hoping to get a better grasp of the real costs to loggers of implementing BMPs in woodlands in which they are harvesting timber. BMPs are structures and tactics that protect water quality and can include water bars, skidder bridges, and culverts.
Water is a valuable commodity of forests. As coordinator of the New York City Watershed Model Forests, within the 1.2 million-acre Catskill Mountains region that provides drinking water to New York City, René has demonstrated model BMPs and compatibility of a working forest and water quality to countless landowners, foresters, and loggers.
“Several organizations in the Northeast subsidize BMPs but have no idea where the cost figures originate that they use to pay loggers. How much do BMPs really cost loggers if we justifiably figure in expenses of equipment ownership and maintenance?” René asks.
During the recent economic recession, profit margins narrowed for landowner, logger, trucker, and mill owner, squeezing many loggers out of business. René and doctoral student Matt Kelly will team up with loggers who will keep journals of their hours and costs to take a more comprehensive look at logging and BMP costs. Accurate BMP cost estimates should help loggers more efficiently plan harvest operations and allow policymakers and cost-share program managers to better gauge the needs and challenges confronting today’s independent logging businesses.
René acknowledges the numerous graduate students who have made his research succeed. He currently advises eight graduate students and serves as graduate education coordinator for the Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management at ESF. In his research, he often involves undergraduate students, especially those with an interest in pursuing graduate education.
René teaches an undergraduate course in forest harvesting operations and one in management for environmental professionals, which he describes as “a business class with an environmental twist.” In his senior capstone course, forest resource management students pull together four years-worth of skills to complete a real life forest management plan. His professional mentoring course culminates with the much anticipated shadowing of a professional forester in the field. He also goes beyond the typical college offerings to bring workshops and continuing education courses to loggers and natural resource managers on topics including BMPs, watershed management, hazard tree management, and silviculture.
When asked who at UVM had the greatest influence on his career, René recognizes former forestry professors Pete Hannah, the late Frank Armstrong, and the late Terry Turner, but gives special credit to the late Carl Reidel who taught René’s undergraduate forest policy class.
“I sought out Carl’s advice well after I had graduated and was working at Ward Lumber, and he encouraged me to take the huge leap from a full-time job to earning my PhD. I am indebted to Carl for his advice,” acknowledges René.
He and his wife Nora (Muscarelli) (FOR ’83), a school guidance counselor, live just outside of Syracuse, New York with their three children. They enjoy hiking and camping in the Adirondack Mountains and, of course, visiting Vermont.