T. R. Dillon Logging of Anson: Learning the Hard Way

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). July 4, 2002.

Dillon objects to his reputation as a forest liquidator.

When the Stowell family forestlands in western Maine were sold in a 1998 bankruptcy proceeding, T. R. Dillon Logging, Inc. of Anson was one of the companies that ultimately benefited. Tom Dillon, who has owned the business for 21 years, bought thousands of acres to harvest and resell. In the last three years, the company has been fined three times by the state for environmental violations.

Tom Dillon, known today in the woods industry as a forest liquidator, readily accepts the blame for the violations Ė all water quality-related. They were caused by "sloppy work" in two instances and a failure of communication in the other situation, he said. As for the harm, "a beaver would cause more erosion" in the affected streams than did his operations did, Dillon claimed.

Dillion said he owns nearly 10,000 acres and also cuts on othersí forestlands. He operates over a 100-mile radius of Anson. He has been a woodsman for 30 years, starting out with just a skidder, and he has seen a lot of change in the forest industry Ė change that has allowed contractors like him to expand and realize substantial profits from quick resell.

In a June 27 interview, Dillon admitted that he "was an offender" of forest protection laws, along with many others, in the old days when regulatory scrutiny of harvest sites was nil or almost so. "I think the pendulum has gone too far in the other direction now," he said, referring to his citations by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Dillon believes that state environmental agencies, which are understaffed, are letting the major landowners police themselves pretty much and are concentrating their limited manpower on independent contractors.

The result, Dillon asserted, is a greater chance of being charged with illegalities. Until the three fines by the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP), he said he had never been cited by the state. By their nature, woods operations are difficult, and if regulators want to find anything wrong, they will, he said. Most of the 75 people who work for him have received training under the Certified Logging Professional program or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Program, as well as gone through best management practices training, Dillon said.

Most of the 75 people who work for Dillon have received training under the Certified Logging Professional Program.

After running afoul of DEP, he said he has made it clear to his employees and contract workers that they have to do a better job. The company is trying to get approved by the Master Logger Program run by the Professional Logging Contractors. He acknowledged that his company has gone through the program previously but failed to pass certification. "Itís a good program," he said. "Like all of them, if you do it right, it helps, but if itís just lipstick on the pig, it doesnít do any good," Dillon said.

T. R. Dillon Logging is a supplier for International Paper (IP), which is trying to weed out problem contractors. Dillion admitted that he has been having discussions with IP over his violations. If he has one more, he predicted his contract with IP will be terminated.

At its June 6 meeting, BEP approved an $11,500 fine against T. R. Dillon Logging for soil disturbance in several streams in Mexico. Fourteen months earlier, Dillon paid $4,800 erosion getting into streams in Roxbury/Andover. The settlement between the company and the state required the employees and subcontractors to attend workshops on best management practices. Another violation in March, 2000, in Whitefield resulted in the company paying $2,700.

Dillion is "one of a handful of contractors learning the hard way," said Jim Cassida of DEP. The company is improving, Cassida said. "Since the first time we were involved, there is markedly better performance," he said.

The hole in the companyís operations, Cassida said, is "they donít have anyone checking their sites for compliance" with environmental protection laws. Dillon countered that he has one forester on staff and employs another forester halftime to check on his field operations. Obviously, they didnít check the sites where violations occurred "and should have," Dillon said.

Just how much oversight the state has on independent contractors is unclear. Tom Doak, director of the Maine Forest Service, said that checking harvest sites for compliance with the Forest Practices Act (FPA) is "a big part of our job. We are on thousands of sites . . . and we donít just respond to complaints," he said. But the forest service has fewer than 100 rangers and foresters to cover the entire state, and Doak said he anticipates 10 vacant field positions this year.

The Maine Forest Service's objective is "to change peoplesí behavior," not just simply fine them.

If thereís a minor violation, "we will solve it on the spot," said Doak. If substantial, the case gets handed over to DEP or the Land Use Regulation Commission, which have their own enforcement staffs. Those agencies are regularly understaffed.

Responding to Dillonís contention that oversight is tougher on independent contractors, Doak said that his agency "doesnít make distinctions between large and small businesses" in checking on FPA compliance. Dillon doesnít have a record of violations with the forest service, Doak confirmed.

The agencyís objective is "to change peoplesí behavior," not just simply fine them, Doak said. The forest service "has had good success" toward that end, he said. "Weíve said we will help you if you are willing to change the way you operate."

For repeat offenders, the forest service elevates fines each time there is a proven violation. "One of the hopes I have [of changing behavior] is on the mill side," Doak said. "Iíve had a number of mills that want to know" who the violators are so they can decide whether to continue to do business with them. We publicize violators," Doak noted. "We want the public and suppliers to know [who the violators are]."

State property tax records show that Dillon has purchased millions of dollars worth of the former Stowell lands (United Timber Inc.) that included 314 different parcels in 55 municipalities and unorganized townships in five counties. McDonald Investment Co. of Birmingham bought the 91,000 acres of woodlands for at least $20 million and resold some of it to Dillon. One of his last large investments was $2,548,000 for tracts in Carthage, Weld, Madrid and Sunday River.

Dillon recouped some of his investment from the Trust for Public Lands this year by selling 1,707 acres for $661,000. An agreement prevented him from cutting the forest prior to closing the deal, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Melville.

797-acre parcel purchased from Dillon added 376 acres to the Webb Lake campground area of Mt. Blue State Park.

A 797-acre parcel purchased from Dillon on March 12, 2002, and given to the state added 376 acres to the Webb Lake campground area of Mt. Blue State Park, and 421 acres on the northwest corner of the park were acquired to be placed in the public reserve lands system. A 910-acre purchase on April 25, 2002, on the north side of the public lands will be resold with restrictions to a timber buyer, after the trust conveys a conservation easement to the state.

Dillon doesnít apologize for cutting and reselling the land; in fact, heís "proud" of his business that he built from scratch. The generally accepted definition of a forest liquidator is one who buys land to strip and resell for an immediate profit, usually for house lots.

Asked if he objected to his reputation as a liquidator. Yes, he answered. The definition as used in public debate is "awful gray," he said. Sure, he buys land and subdivides it, but Dillon said heís not a developer Ė and he doesnít have the kind of real estate subsidiary that a Herb Haynes does. (H. C. Haynes Inc. of Winn is the stateís largest independent contractor and forest liquidator, and its development entity is Lakeville Shores Inc.)

Dillon mentioned reselling parcels of a few hundred acres to people who want to hold onto the land for their grandchildren and may put a hunting camp on the land. But he doesnít think that qualifies him for the liquidator label.

Before he began purchasing some of the Stowell lands, Dillon said he was small enough an outfit to "not have much going on out there" that would interest state regulators. But now heís cutting 10 times the wood he was in the past. "These things that occur in the woods and create erosion probably would occur on anyoneís logging job in a week," Dillon said. "But youíre supposed to do as well as you can to prevent it from happening."

Referring to logger training programs, Dillon said his crews "have been through it, through it and through it. But some of my people use poor judgment," he conceded. The cutter responsible for the June, 2002, violation, "did a half-baked job" that caused soil erosion in a stream narrow so enough "you could walk over it," Dillon said. "A fish would not go up it" because of the small size, he said.

Brush left in a stream crossing can lead to hefty fines.

In the second case, a contractor working for him left brush in a stream crossing. A year and a half later, a forest ranger saw it had not been taken out, Dillon said, and he was held accountable. There was a miscommunication with the contractor, Dillon explained.

"I donít want these things to happen," Dillon said, adding that he thinks the fines are "unjust in a sense. Where does one get fined $11,000 or $12,000 in this state even for manslaughter?" he questioned. Anyone finding out that he had been fined that much "would think Tom Dillon was in the middle of a brook with a bulldozer and say, by God, whatever did he do?" he said.

"I could run around and be mad," Dillon said, but he has a son in the business and wants to "be objective" about the situation and try to get his workers to do a better job. "Iíve explained to them theyíve got to do a better job," he said. "I think they understand."

The landowner is responsible for the actions of his employees, and two of the three DEP violations were caused by one person on his payroll, Dillon said. That person is no longer an employee but instead a "service contractor" who must account for himself with state regulators, Dillon explained. "It puts him more on the front line."

Dillon has five service contractors and each of them might have 10 or 12 people working under him. All five have been trained in best management practices, Dillon said. "You can put people in school all you want," he said. But if they donít receive punishment [for their activities instead of the landowner]" the education might not matter so much," he said.

On the subject of IP, Dillon said he has had "very lengthy" discussions with IP, whose message was "youíve got to stop allowing this to happen or we wonít renew your contract." He does have a contract now, he added.

"IP wants to sell green paper to make money," Dillon said. "Theyíve got to have wood too. IP, in its whole history, has gotten on different bandwagons Ė workersí comp, overweight trucks. Others talk about it but donít emphasize things like IP."

Dillon pointed out that the loggers who have caused problems for him also work for other forest landowners. "[Mills] buy wood from the same labor pool," he said. "It kind of disgusts me . . . the same guy working for me works for SAPPI, Plum Creek, IP-- they just happened to screw up on Tom Dillonís land."

Joel Swanton, manager of sustainable forestry for IPís northern region, said the companyís policy is that they wonít buy wood from those who produce it illegally. "Our procurement forester monitors the activities of our suppliers to insure the wood that comes to IP" meets Forest Practices Act standards and best management practices, he said. "If we find that behavior inconsistent, we work with them to raise the understanding and change in behavior. If over time, the producer or landowner is not capable of changing behavior", IP will end the relationship, Swanton said.