in Features

Unclear Cutting

The Yale Investments Office owns vast timberlands in northern New England. Some question whether the land has been managed sustainably.

The autumn leaves of New Hampshire’s Coos County, the Great North Woods, beyond the White Mountains, obscure my view. I am searching for what Rick Samson, seated next to me in a camouflage button-down, is trying to show me, but I can’t see past the burnt yellows, oranges, and caramel browns. Samson and I are in his black pickup, bumping along a gravel road a few miles into a dense woodland. The vast majority—81 percent—of New Hampshire land is forest. Every so often Samson slows his truck to say, “See how small this stuff is? There was nothing here when they cut it,” or, “If you look down through there, there is nothing; there is nothing left here at all.” But everywhere I look, except for a few unremarkable tracts where the forest has been cleared, I see trees—poplars, beeches, maples—and lots of them.

I am not qualified to assess whether a logging operation is sustainable or not. But neither, really, is Samson. Even though he has spent more than seventy years hunting and snowmobiling in the New Hampshire woods, he is a county commissioner with no technical background in forestry. Still, Samson isn’t shy about sharing his opinion. The tree trunks are skinnier than they should be, he says, and they have been hacked down in recent years where they should have been thriving. 

Samson feels so strongly about the mismanagement of the land here, in Millsfield, New Hampshire, that he has agreed to take me on a tour of the property without its owner’s permission. As a public official, Samson is not too worried about getting in trouble. He is confident that he could proffer a convincing excuse were someone to catch us. I am not worried, either, because I feel that I have a stake in the land. I am a Yale student, and Yale, though reluctant to admit it, owns this forest. 

To be precise, the Yale Investments Office owns it. Unlike Yale’s research forests, which the School of Forestry own and operate, this timberland is part of the university’s $30.3 billion endowment. Its purpose, plain and simple, is profit. 

Nothing about the physical property suggests that the trees are Yale’s. A sign at the entrance declares that the land belongs to “Bayroot LLC.” A Google search of “Bayroot LLC” reveals that the company has no website. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what Bayroot is. According to a handful of news articles, Bayroot is not an ordinary LLC, but a “subsidiary” or a “shell company.” More informative is a line in Yale’s federal tax documents, which says the university owns 98.8 percent of Bayroot, a share valued at $58.6 million, as of 2018. Essentially, Bayroot is a name on paper—a name that conveniently conceals the Yale Investments Office’s efforts to gobble up land in rural New Hampshire and Maine. 

To make matters more complicated, Yale (or Bayroot) doesn’t actually manage the land it owns; a company called Wagner Forest Management does. Wagner oversees logging operations and land management plans on 2.7-million acres of forest across New England and eastern Canada. The primary goal of timber investment management organizations like Wagner is to maximize return for their investors. Between 1993 and 2017, investments in U.S. timber returned an average of a little over 8 percent, meaning that timber is a stable long-term investment. In his book Pioneering Portfolio Management, David Swensen, Yale’s chief investment officer, explains that timberland “offers strong return potential, steady cash flow, inflation protection, and portfolio diversification.” In short, it is a safe and steady institutional investment—one that won’t necessarily make a fortune in the short term, but will generate good returns over the course of generations. (Swensen declined to comment for this story.)

Most of the trees in Coos County used to be owned by paper companies, but within the last three decades, timber supply has shifted to a global market as cheap imports have outmatched domestic products. The local forest-products industry has been hit hard. Coos’ mills have shuttered, and outside private investors like Yale have bought up holdings, hoping to capitalize on timber’s low risk and steady returns.

Northern New Hampshire has always relied heavily—economically and culturally—on forests. Timber “is our economy. It’s our sense of place and our sense of community. Our heritage really is built into the landscape,” said Liz Wyman, a Yale School of Forestry graduate who now lives in Lancaster, the county seat. Lifelong Coos County resident and local journalist John Harrigan, who used to manage 160 acres of timberland around his home, echoed Wyman. “I’ve been involved in wood, one way or another, all my life. It’s just part of me,” said Harrigan, whose dining hall ceiling is supported by gargantuan red maple logs, cut in the mid-19th century.

As I ride along with Samson through the woods, he recalls that, in 2017, Harrigan and another one of his friends, Wayne Montgomery, a former logger, were fined $124 for escorting a few Yale School of Forestry students along the same private road that we are now driving down. They were checking on the forest, much as Samson and I are. (Neither Samson nor the students were charged because they were passengers, and the fine was for operating motorized vehicles without permission.) 

Later, when I visited Harrigan at his home, he laughed about the fine. Harrigan, whose family has owned two Coos County newspapers for decades, has been dubbed “The King of the North Country” because he is quite possibly more devoted to the woods of northern New Hampshire than anyone else. While Harrigan has not spent much time analyzing Wagner’s forestry practices, he called the company’s management of the Millsfield forest  “a cut-and-get-out,” a logging job “with little regard for what could come.” He said that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a “quick cut for profit” and a genuinely sustainable harvest. “When they look at a forest, they just see trees.” 

*

Dottie Kurtz sees Wagner’s trees just about everyday. Kurtz is a town administrator in Errol, another one-main-intersection Coos County hamlet, which borders Yale’s land. I met her at the Errol town hall, a three-story white wood home. As Kurtz and I walked around the town hall’s main foyer, lined with photos of lumberjacks and felled logs, I asked her about allegations against Wagner’s timber practices. To my surprise, she gave me a perplexed look and said, “I have never heard anyone say anything negative—ever.”

Wagner manages the land adjacent to Kurtz’s backyard.  She often rides her snowmobile along the network of trails that crisscrosses Wagner-managed forest. “They take good care of the land,” Kurtz said. “They manage it well. They’re good neighbors.” Kurtz knew about the Yale-Bayroot connection, although she wasn’t bothered by it and said most people in Errol probably were not aware of it. When I pressed her again about the possibility that Wagner has not managed Yale’s land to a high ethical standard, she was nearly lost for words. “I can’t—I’m dumbfounded.” 

I, too, was dumbfounded. After all the suspicious things I had heard about Wagner, here was one of Wagner’s neighbors telling me the company was taking good care of the land. Then again, I knew that most people, including me, could not tell the difference between good and bad timber management. In Yale Forestry Professor Chad Oliver’s lingo: “A lot of amateurs don’t know a good forest practice when they see it.” Besides, even the few people with enough expertise to assess a timber harvest might have different understandings of what “good” and “bad” mean in the world of forestry. 

After speaking with Kurtz, I doubted more than ever that Wagner was an evil corporation laying waste to the county’s forests. But I also figured that, as friendly and forthright as Kurtz was, she might not be seeing the whole picture. And I feared that I wasn’t either.

*

The environmental consequences of unsustainable logging are fairly straightforward: habitat loss (for animals like lynx, in New England), decline in biodiversity, soil and watershed damage. But maybe the most urgent danger is climate change: forests store a tremendous amount of carbon. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, forests offset 13 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions. 

NEFF, a forest conservation nonprofit, has published guidelines for timber practices that would sequester 1.9 gigatons of carbon in New England forests in the next twenty years—the equivalent of taking every vehicle in New England off the road, according to NEFF’s executive director Bob Perschel. “Yale could be a part of that challenge,” Perschel said.

Since neither Perschel nor the rest of us know exactly how Wagner manages Yale’s land, it is impossible to say specifically what the company could do differently. But NEFF’s recommended logging practices would generate 2 to 4 percent in annual returns, falling well short of the Yale endowment’s 5.7 percent average annual return on natural resources over the last ten years.

In 2009, Yale said that its timber interests comprised roughly three-million acres. The University has held vast holdings in New England forestland at least since the early 2000s. In December 2003, Bayroot bought 129 thousand acres of land in New Hampshire and more than five hundred thousand acres in Maine. At the time, no one was aware that Bayroot was connected to Yale. “All we knew about was Bayroot, Bayroot, Bayroot,” Samson reflected. “We thought it was just another company.” (Yale also owns 91.3 percent of Typhoon LLC, which, according to a 2011 Bangor Daily News article, holds 471,000 thousand of acres of land in Maine. Typhoon LLC’s land, like Bayroot’s, is managed by Wagner.)

Much about Yale’s endowment is mysterious. Swensen has not revealed any specifics about Yale’s holdings—such as value, location, amount of returns, or partnerships with other companies. Swensen has railed against student activists and the Yale Daily News, which, he wrote in a March 2018 op-ed in the News, “frequently fails to meet fundamental journalistic standards” in reporting on the endowment. But when student activists and reporters, and even members of directly affected communities, like Samson, a say-it-like-it-is Navy vet and registered Republican, have pressed the University to defend its investment practices, administrators have responded with condescension at worst and cryptic answers at best. The Investments Office has a policy not to speak with reporters on the record.

Yale cannot dispute that Wagner has not been perfect. The company was fined $35,000 in 2009 by the Maine Forest Service for clearcutting in an area of Bayroot land where such activity was not allowed. Clearcutting is the practice of removing every last merchandisable tree from an area of five or more acres. 

Glenn Booma, a biologist by training who has spent time in Bayroot’s woods since the nineteen-seventies, said he can immediately tell the difference when he crosses onto Bayroot land. Booma doesn’t have a formal background in forestry, but he doesn’t hold back from criticizing Wagner. “What I see when I walk on their property is embarrassing for them,” Booma says, and it “could likely be corrected with modest improvements in timber management.” He describes trees cut too close to wetlands and severe erosion near roads and waterways. Sediment from erosion after a harvest can harm trout populations; alongside a New Hampshire state fish biologist, Booma found that the area’s brook trout “literally decreased by hundreds of fish in a hundred meter stretch” following a heavy cut on Bayroot land. Booma observes that these practices, though inexcusable, might be expected of a for-profit timber company. But of an institution that claims to care so deeply about environmental stewardship and ethical leadership?

In a 2017 open letter to the Yale Investments Office, Wyman, the Yale Forestry graduate, implored the University “to stop destroying our landscape, communities, environment, and economy with poor management decisions on its thousands of acres of timberland in New Hampshire.” Wyman also is not an expert in forest management, but she did learn about sustainable forestry at the Yale School of Forestry. She said she has enough background to feel confident that Wagner is “not practicing real, genuine sustainable forestry.” And Yale, she says, is complicit.

*

“How would you sum up what Yale has done wrong, what Wagner has done wrong, what Bayroot has done wrong?” I ask Wayne Montgomery, Samson’s former logger friend, who leans all the way back in his recliner, his feet nearly level with his head. 

Montgomery, Samson, and I are at Montgomery’s house, a one-story, light blue home, typical of rural New England, with an American flag hanging out front and a pickup parked in the driveway. Montgomery lives in Groveton, New Hampshire, a small town that used to buzz with the hum of a paper mill, but now is unhurried and quiet, other than the occasional whizz of a timber lorry passing through town.

Wagner manages its forests, Montgomery answers, “with a policy of just trying to produce the highest-valued products as quickly and as much as they can, and it’s a short term management plan. There’s no sustainability.” Montgomery admits that he cannot say with certainty at what rate Wagner harvests timber, but he said he would bet it is “three or four times” that of truly sustainable logging companies. To put it simply, Montgomery argues that Wagner harvests far too fast to maintain an ecologically healthy forest. 

Montgomery ushers me over to his dining room table, where four printed-out satellite images lay side by side. Two of the photos show Bayroot’s land in Millsfield, one captured in 2003, when Bayroot bought the land, the other from 2015, after the land had been logged. The 2003 photo reveals an emerald green earth, fractured only by a few skinny brown lines representing roads. Referring to the 2015 photo, Samson joked, “If a squirrel wanted to go across that land it would need a knapsack and lunch.”

As I view the images, Montgomery opens his laptop and pulls up the satellite software administered by the University of New Hampshire. He says that Dartmouth College owns and manages a timber operation on land adjacent to Bayroot’s land, in Cambridge, New Hampshire. Both Samson and Montgomery insist that Dartmouth practices exemplary forestry. 

Montgomery zooms in on the border of Bayroot’s land and Dartmouth’s land. “This is the Dartmouth property here,” he says, pointing to the right side of the screen. “And it is treated totally and completely different. Now there are places where they’ve harvested timber here, and you can actually see that.” Then he points a little to the left of the border. “But there’s nothing left here; this strip of land—there’s nothing left. It’s gone,” he says.

Even to my untrained eye, the evidence of clearcutting on Bayroot’s land seemed stark. But I still was not quite sure what to do with that knowledge. In the moment, I assumed clearcutting was not good practice, but upon further research, I discovered that it actually can be advisable in certain situations. In its guide to ecologically sound forest management, the New England Forestry Foundation states, “Despite the public concern, clearcutting may be called upon where mature trees are in poor health or condition due to ice damage, insect infestation or other disturbances, or to create habitat for birds and mammals requiring larger patches of early-successional forest.” Could anyone really analyze Wagner’s practices from just a few satellite images, without knowing why and to what extent they actually engaged in those practices? Samson and Montgomery refer to the satellite images as indisputable evidence of Wagner’s ill management. But my doubt lingered.

After meeting with Samson and Montgomery, I reached out to Kevin Evans, the manager of Dartmouth’s timberland—called the Second College Grant. Evans thinks that sustainable forestry is pretty straightforward. “My goal is that I don’t cut anymore than I grow,” he said. The Second College Grant does not belong to Dartmouth’s endowment, but it is managed for profit and, according to its website, “provides revenue for student scholarship.” Evans calls the forest “an investment property,” but unlike the Yale Investments Office, Dartmouth uses its woodland for research and outdoor recreation, not only timber harvesting. Evans declined to comment on Wagner’s management. The most he would say about Yale is, “They don’t want to tell people what’s there.” 

*

I decided to go see what the people at Wagner would or would not tell me. When I arrived unannounced at Wagner’s field office in Errol, a white-bearded man in dark jeans and a red-and-black flannel button-down ushered me into the small office. I was shocked to be welcomed so amicably and even more surprised that, after a few minutes of rather awkward conversation, the man, Raymond Berthiaume, harvest planning and operations manager, agreed to speak with me. Berthiaume oversees more than 500,000 acres of land in New Hampshire and western Maine, mostly owned by Bayroot.

Berthiaume’s initial response to my concerns about Wagner’s logging practices was that the company is certified as “sustainable” by third-party auditors. In fact, Berthiaume told me, one of those companies—Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI—was out on Wagner’s land auditing the company as we spoke. He said one or both of the auditors, the other called Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, checks up on Wagner every year. The company’s website confirms that the certifications are “a critical part of Wagner’s business model” and guarantee “an objective evaluation of Wagner’s sustainability efforts.” The Yale Investments Office made a similar argument in a 2017 press release, calling Wagner “a world-class manager of timberland.”

Montgomery and Samson had told me that the green certifications do not mean much, that it is not that hard to become certified and that Wagner and other timber companies actually pay for the certifications—a potential conflict of interest. But Berthiaume insisted that the auditors are entirely independent and have high standards. (Other foresters I have interviewed similarly dispelled claims that the auditors lack independence.) 

Compared to Yale’s secretive ownership, Berthiaume’s candor was refreshing. “I’d say Bayroot is probably the number one or two largest private landowners in the state,” he said. “If you’re driving through northern New Hampshire, there’s better than a 75 percent chance you’re looking at Bayroot-owned land.” Besides, many of Berthiaume’s points made perfect sense: “Wagner is in the business of managing timberland, so it’s in our interest to keep the timberland timberland. And, why would we change that? That’s cutting ourselves out of a job, and that’s not a good business plan.”

Berthiaume also denied Samson and Montgomery’s claims that Wagner engages in unsustainable practices like clearcutting. He fell back on the fact that Wagner has been certified as “sustainable” by two independent auditors. 

But as Coos County resident and environmental journalist Jamie Sayen would later tell me, “If you had a hundred people in a room and you asked them to write down the definition of ‘sustainable,’ you would have a hundred different definitions.” It occurred to me that maybe—likely, in fact—neither Montgomery nor Berthiaume was lying. They were just operating under different understandings of “sustainable.” 

*

Local opposition to Wagner’s forest management and to Yale’s furtive presence in Coos County extends beyond the logging question. In November 2012, Wagner leased a 24-mile stretch of Bayroot land in Coos County to Eversource Energy, an energy conglomerate planning to build a hydro-electric transmission line, called Northern Pass, from Quebec to Massachusetts. (The financial details of the lease were not publicly disclosed.) Eversource had been buying up land from local residents, trying to carve out a contiguous route for the $1.6 billion power cable through northern New Hampshire. Private landowners and environmental groups banded together to oppose the project, which they argued would harm the landscape and hurt property value. Bayroot’s land was key. “Without Bayroot I don’t know if [Eversource] could have done it,” said Chris Jensen, a former reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio who covered the controversy in its early stages.  

News of Yale’s involvement with Bayroot only added to the opposition movement’s narrative of an out-of-touch corporation taking advantage of a small rural community. In a January 2018 Yale Daily News op-ed, Samson wrote that the transmission line would, among other harmful things, “mar forests that we have depended on and enjoyed for centuries.” Yale, Samson argued, “is extracting significant wealth from Coos County.” Charlie Jordan, who owns and edits the Colebrook Chronicle—a local weekly paper—said Northern Pass is the only issue his paper has ever taken a stand on. “This was the fundamental crux of why people live here” 

In May 2017, Samson, Montgomery, and a few fellow Coos County residents traveled five hours to Yale to participate in a teach-in alongside student activists. Samson and the students also visited the School of Forestry hoping to meet with dean Indy Burke, but Samson said she was not there. He said upon returning home he received a call from the Yale police, who told him he might be arrested if he went back to Yale’s campus. (Samson does not have a record of the call.) Unfazed, Samson returned to campus in October 2017 to deliver a petition to the Investments Office, but he was barred entry. “I was not a dissident until I visited Yale,” Samson later reflected, grinning.

Throughout the Northern Pass controversy, Yale public affairs officers asserted that Wagner’s contract with Eversource had already been signed and that Wagner could not legally back out. Although the University refuses to speak in detail about its contract with Wagner, Yale’s argument appears something like: when the Investments Office enters into a contract with an investment manager, it sets general expectations and ethical guidelines for the manager but yields authority to interfere with day-to-day operations. Yale did not have the power to terminate the Northern Pass lease nor would it have the power to change Wagner’s logging practices. Still, the Yale Investments Office’s website declares, “Yale will work with fund managers to implement its ethical investment policies” and can attempt “moral suasion.” When push comes to shove, Yale can sell its interest in a company to a secondary buyer. But that would cost money, not make it.

Ultimately, in July 2019, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire unanimously upheld a ruling that Eversource failed to demonstrate that the power line would not interfere with local land uses. The court’s ruling ended the Northern Pass project, but the fight has moved to Maine, where another power company, Central Maine Power, or CMP, hopes to route a similar transmission line from Quebec to Massachusetts. In late August, Wagner agreed to a deal with CMP to run the line across seventeen acres of Bayroot-owned land in Maine. The Bangor Daily News reported that Yale’s president Peter Salovey wrote in an email to a concerned state representative that Yale has “no direct ownership of land in Maine,” but only “indirect property interests.” Salovey’s statement aligns with Yale’s curt defenses during the Northern Pass debate, but the fact remains that even an investor with “indirect property interests” has leverage. The issue is not that Yale lacks power; it is that the University doesn’t think that what is happening on its timberland constitutes a serious enough breach of ethics—or at least the University is not ready to reconsider how, or with whom, it invests in timber.

*

The Yale School of Forestry’s nearly 11,000 acres of New England timberland is entirely separate from the endowment’s. Frank Cervo, who manages the School’s woods, emphasized this fact several times to me, as did Professor Chad Oliver, who said there is a “firewall” between the Investments Office and the School of Forestry. Forestry professors and staff simply do not get involved in the management of the endowment. 

Curious about the “firewall,” I wrote to School of Forestry Dean Indy Burke. She replied,  “It’s not really a firewall, it’s just that we have our own forests” and to manage those “is about all we can possibly do.”  She said that the School of Forestry won’t criticize the endowment: “It’s rather like caring a great deal about your family but not getting involved or taking sides in your siblings’ marital issues just because you love and understand them.”  

Burke was nothing but gracious in her willingness to engage with me, and she even offered to meet with me in person, although not before my deadline for this piece. In her email, Burke rightfully pointed out that the implications of Wagner’s forestry management are complex. But Burke, as any Yale student or professor, has a stake in the endowment, and she, as the leader of one of the nation’s most prestigious forestry schools, has a unique position of power from which to weigh in on the ethics of timber management. 

Cervo graduated from the School of Forestry last year and has minimal knowledge about Wagner’s logging practices, but he cautions me about criticizing the company. He warns that some of the coverage he has seen about Wagner has lacked “basis” in forest ecology. In October 2018, Cervo took several Yale students on a tour of New Hampshire forestry, including Wagner-managed land. He called the company “gracious” hosts and said that nothing he observed seemed problematic. But, he admitted, “You’d need two to three weeks [on Wagner’s land] if you really wanted to diagnose what they’re doing.” 

I can’t conclude that Wagner is doing something categorically wrong. I don’t have the expertise to assert my own judgments about a company’s forestry practices, and I am not sure anyone who has the expertise as well as the means and time to assess Wagner’s operation comprehensively would speak to me on the record. I strongly suspect Wagner could be doing better. And I believe firmly that the Yale Investments Office should invest only with a company that practices exemplary forestry, even if doing so would generate less profit. But until we know exactly what Wagner is doing on Yale’s land and until the right people start looking into what Wagner is doing on Yale’s land, forming an accurate conclusion about whether or not Wagner practices “sustainable” forestry may be impossible.

Yale’s endowment covers more than a quarter of the University’s operating budget, including professorships and financial aid. And the Investments Office engages in secrecy no doubt to prevent competitors from discovering their investment strategies. Secrecy gives Yale a leg up. It helps Yale fund critical programs. It benefits all of us, students and faculty alike.

At the same time, secrecy prevents us, stakeholders, from holding the University to the high standards that it preaches. At an institution which prides itself in the pursuit of Lux et Veritas, which teaches its students to be curious, to ask questions, and to challenge boilerplate narratives, secrecy about the ethics of its investments is a violation of Yale’s own stated values.

“If the heat gets too hot in the kitchen,” Glenn Booma said, Yale will change how it invests in timber. “The heat’s just not hot enough yet because you’ve got to drive hundreds of miles from New Haven and twenty-five miles up a dirt road in order to look at this stuff.” I drove that distance, and I would encourage others to do the same. Only then will what happens beneath the forest canopy become clearer. And only then will we know if the kitchen will get too hot. 

Max Graham is a senior in Davenport College and co-editor-in-chief of The New Journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

Latest from Features

The Incumbent

After a decades-long career in politics, Toni Harp reckons with her first-ever…

The Challenger

With the mayor’s office in sight, Justin Elicker works to win New…

Unguarded

For adults with developmental disabilities or mental illness, conservatorship can be life-…

Go to Top