Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands believes in good forest stewardship

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press Joe Huber, an area forester with Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands, measures a log cut by a harvester at a live logging site in Watson.

ESCANABA — The business practices of Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands, which owns more than half a million acres of forested land in the Upper Peninsula, are the result of a series of events surrounding the history of logging in the region.

In the mid-1800s, Michigan led the country in lumbering. By the end of the 19th century, much of the U.P. forests had been clear-cut. Some companies left after this exhaustion of resources. But trees, of course, grew back, and modern foresters are more conscientious of sustainability. They harvest, thin, and reforest in various ways, taking into account numerous factors.

The status of each parcel of land owned by Lyme is recorded in detail — no mean feat, considering they own 1.3 million acres in hundreds of plots of land, the smallest being 40 acres. Information recorded includes the cover type, the age of the trees, when the area was last harvested, the basal area (square feet per acre), and more. To maintain each area and ensure the health of each type of tree, Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands employs knowledgeable, skilled and responsible foresters, said General Manager Bill O’Brion.

The Lyme Timber Company began purchasing land in 1976, but it wasn’t until 2019 that they acquired any in the Great Lakes region. However, many of the employees who work with O’Brion have been making their careers on the same land base for decades.

According to O’Brion, U.P. paper mills were looking to sell some of their land in order to invest in their mills in the early 2000s. Plum Creek Lumber purchased massive tracts from MeadWestvaco. An even larger company, Weyerhaeuser, was accumulating land in the area as well, and in 2016, the two merged. “So all the employees that were Plum Creek employees came to be Weyerhaeuser employees one morning when we woke up in brand new hats,” said O’Brion. Some older colleagues have been doing the same sort of things in the same woods since the time Mead owned the land. Just three years after the merger, The Lyme Timber Company, which is based in New Hampshire, purchased the former paper mill land and more.

Technological developments over the years have meant new equipment that is not only more efficient but also kinder to the forest floor — trucks weighing up to 164,000 pounds have tires that are said to have less impact on the ground than a hiker’s shoe. And navigating the woods has changed dramatically even since O’Brion left University of Wisconsin Stevens Point with his degree in forest management in 1996. He recalls having to reset odometers when crossing landmarks in order to find plots of land, consulting printed aerial photographs, then using Geographic Information Systems with unwieldy equipment. Now, he proudly hands out his business card printed with a QR code to a map displaying all of the land managed by Lyme Great Lakes in reference to a cell phone’s location and based on a live database.

To date, Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands — with offices in Gladstone and L’Anse — manages 633,259 acres across 16 counties in Michigan and Wisconsin. That’s nearly half of the parent company’s entire holdings. The rest is divided among four other Lyme subsidiaries elsewhere in the country.

Did all of the corporate shuffling when property changed hands have an impact on the foresters? Hardly at all, said Joe Huber, and not in any adverse way. O’Brion said that Lyme is the best company he’s worked for. Colleagues are friends; Huber said that the relationships are familial and they help each other with projects outside of work. As general manager, O’Brion has a call with headquarters once a week, but they trust him and his staff to know how to handle the land and the people.

“That degree gives you the understanding of how our forest ecosystem works, and the training to work with our wildlife for all the different habitats and how to protect the water and how to grow the trees and how that all works together. And we like to say that the trees are pretty easy. It’s working with people that’s challenging,” said O’Brion.

But O’Brion seems to have a grasp on people skills. He discussed a belief in treating people with consideration and honesty, whether or not they end up doing business together. On a tour of their facilites in Gladstone, he pointed out features that had come from clients and other local businesses. He named half a dozen in two minutes.

Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands has less than 30 employees, over 70 customers, a roster of contractors, and even more neighbors. Some employees handle sales and marketing; others get their boots dirty managing contractors with their own harvesting equipment deep in the woods. In addition, communication with neighboring landowners is necessary, as are occasional interactions with recreational land users.

Almost all of their land is in the Commercial Forest (CF) program with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. That allows Lyme a lower tax rate and allows the public use of their privately owned land. The company maintains the roads, hundreds of bridges and thousands of culverts, said O’Brion. Some that are not suitable for motorized traffic are gated off but still accessible to skiers, hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders. In general, the land usable for recreation so long as resources are not damaged or removed — legally captured game is an exception.

For more information on Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands, contact (906)789-9076; for the guidelines on public recreation, reach out to the same or find details about CF on the Michigan DNR website.



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