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Forest Journal: Family lumber firm is a good steward of NH's forest land


More than a half-century ago, my father was presented with a choice: Did he, a recent college graduate, want to take over the family retail lumber operation, or should it be sold?

As Dad tells the tale, after looking closely at the business' books he concluded that he was not in a position to make it work. And thus ended multiple generations of family ownership and management. I don't think Dad regrets that decision - though nostalgia sent us both back just a few years ago to retrieve a chest of drawers that was built at the family lumber yard before my time.

The forest products industry today is still populated with family businesses, in spite of the challenges of competing in a global market.

I recently had the privilege of touring the sawmill at Lavalley's Middleton Building Supply. Lavalley's was started 75 years ago by the DiPrizio family, which created an opportunity out of the millions of board feet of pine blown down during the Hurricane of '38 and built it into a business. Lavalley's acquired it in 1993, and today it's an impressive operation, from the computer software that helps the sawyer minimize waste and maximize value as he converts round sawlogs into dimensional lumber to the use of sawdust to generate electricity for the operation and heat for the drying kiln.

One of the most impressive track records, though, has to belong to the Wilkins Lumber Company in Milford, owned by Tom and Sally Wilkins. A member of the family has owned and managed the operation going back eight generations, to 1808.

Wilkins Lumber was founded by E.L. Hartshorn, who built a saw mill next to the brook on his farm in Milford. In the late 1800s, Hartshorn descendants married into the Wilkins family, which continued to operate and improve the mill. Always a source of local lumber, the Wilkins' business has survived the Great Depression, that same Hurricane of '38, a fire started by a lightning strike and ongoing market challenges.

Among the reasons for Wilkins Lumber's astounding legacy and business survival has been the careful acquisition of its own working forests to supply the mill with a steady stream of quality wood.

Managing those lands with long-range vision not only helped but increased the Wilkins' timber value. However, whenever the business and its associated lands changed hands from one generation to the next, they found themselves needing to sell off some of the land (a vexing problem for lands in developed areas, which, for estate tax purposes, are assessed at their development value rather than their timberland or open-space value).

Tom and Sally have decided to take a different approach to addressing the estate tax, working with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to put conservation easements on 500 acres in the increasingly developed towns of Mont Vernon and Amherst. By selling conservation easements at a bargain rate, the family can protect the land, keep it open for sustainable forestry and pedestrian public access, and keep it in the family. The easements will protect forest, wetlands and streams that feed the Souhegan and Piscataquog rivers in the Merrimack River watershed. Critters will still get to call it home, too.

This is not the first time the Wilkins family has done a good thing with land they own. They've donated land to Amherst, Milford and Mont Vernon, as well as to the Amherst Land Trust and the New England Forestry Foundation in New Boston. They've done so because their belief in good stewardship extends to the community. It's a large part of the reason their family business has survived for more than 200 years.

For more information about the Wilkins Family Forest project, visit www.forestsociety.org.

"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Jack Savage is editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire's Conservation Magazine, published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at jsavage@forestsociety.org.

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