In the early days of my career as a sportsmen’s advocate, I knew all of the principles in Maine’s forest industry. Paper companies owned most of our North Woods, and their woods managers were Mainers who were readily accessible (and accountable) to us.
That’s all changed, or course, with the most recent purchases by billionaire TV mogul John Malone, bringing his ownership up more than 1 million acres, only the latest example of the trend to out-of-state owners who are neither accessible nor accountable to the citizens of Maine.
Throughout it all, the Robbins family in Searsmont has maintained its key place in the state’s forest industry, demonstrating a keen sense of appreciation for our hunting and fishing heritage, good stewardship of their forestlands and a commitment to their workers.
In the early 1990s, Jim Robbins convinced me that sportsmen — including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, where I served as executive director — and the forest industry shared common interests and should be working together. And we did.
Jim and I also hunted and fished together, and I got to know him and his brother Jenness well.
So it was a real pleasure to attend a Blaine House ceremony in September, when the Robbins Lumber Co. of Searsmont received the 2011 Austin Wilkins Forest Stewardship Award. This is the very highest honor for a Maine forest products company.
According to Ron Lovaglio, former commissioner of the Department of Conservation who was instrumental in creating this award, it took the 100-year-old Wilkins a bit of time to give his blessing to the award. And Wilkins was astonished when the very first award went to him.
That was appropriate, given that Wilkins worked for the Maine Forest Service for 44 years, served as commissioner from 1958 to 1972, and worked for 13 governors.
In 1959, Wilkins presented the Robbins family with an award as Maine’s 400th tree farm, and he knew three generations of the family.
As today’s Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley noted at the event, “Like the white pine itself, they have a family taproot that goes deep into the soil.”
Forest Service Director Doug Denico, who has known the Robbins family for 50 years, cited them for two things: their generosity in sharing their knowledge and time as the best white pine managers in the state, and their ability to sustain their business through five generations.
Actually, it looks like it will be six generations. Gov. Paul LePage, who presented the award, congratulated the family on the birth of twin boys the day before, to one of Jim and wife Anne’s sons and daughters-in-law.
The family arrived in Searsmont in 1881. But if you’ve read Ben Ames Williams book, “Come Spring,” you know that they got to nearby Union a long time before that. That’s a long taproot indeed.
Several things about Robbins Lumber impress me. It built white ash bats for Ted Williams. It established a conservation easement on 200,000 acres surrounding Nicatous Lake. It produces 26 million board feet of top-quality white pine lumber a year, and has expanded its business into pre-cut parts and secondary-manufactured products, including 45,000 wooden ice cream freezer buckets. And it sells 15,000 Christmas trees in and out of state each year.
Family members still are managing lands their great-grandfather managed. When he spoke at the event for the family, Jim told some great stories.
Of the 4-H club planting trees when Jenness was 3 years old in 1941, and how they harvested them just before their mother died, when she told them, “Why not? That’s what we planted them for.”
Of climbing trees with a saw when he was 12, to trim them, and cutting his way down the tree to the ground.
Great stewards of their lands, Jim also emphasized, “It’s good to harvest timber.” He noted that the Maine forest holds 87 percent more wood than it did in 1970, and the forest industry is three times more productive.
The Robbins family is a throwback to the old days — when the landowners were in the store — and hopefully also our future.
Returning from a fishing adventure a couple years ago, we were eating lunch at Gingerbread House in Oquossic when Jim looked up and said, with obvious pride, “That’s our pine up there.”
If you spend just a few minutes with Jim Robbins, you’ll quickly learn how proud he is of his family and their family business.
Now, with the receipt of the Austin Wilkins Forest Stewardship Award, Jim — and the entire Robbins clan — has something else of which to be proud.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.