Is Maine's Largest Maple Sugar Bush In Danger, Or Is The Owner Getting A Sweet Deal?

May 9, 2017

A Maine businessman and a national conservation group are seeking $6 million to protect a prized plantation of sugar maples in Somerset County. But the project’s remote location and its Canadian-produced maple syrup raise questions about whether Mainers should subsidize a conservation easement.

Paul Fortin’s keys bang against the steering column of his truck as he clears the Sainte-Aurelie border crossing back into the United States. It’s rainy and cold, and the gravel of Baker Lake Road is pocked with puddles, potholes and washboard.

The road gets rougher deeper into Fortin’s property, a 23,600-acre swath of timberland at the northwest edge of Somerset County known as the Big Six Forest.

Fortin is a Madison businessman who prefers to keep his land and timber deals private. But he has agreed to escort a reporter and photographer here to showcase Big Six’s prized 4,500-acre plantation of sap-producing maple forest, also known as a sugar bush. It’s said to account for around 25 percent of Maine’s total maple syrup production.

Fortin is seeking about $6 million from the state and federal government to create a conservation easement here. If successful, he would essentially be paid to preempt his original plan for the property: to cut and sell the sugar bush.

Fortin rejects the notion that he’s positioned for a sweetheart deal.

“No one in my business likes to be in the newspaper, especially in a negative fashion,” Fortin says.

Fortin was referring to news stories suggesting that the Big Six easement is a political transaction. The project has been endorsed by Gov. Paul LePage, whose campaigns Fortin has financially supported.

Bernard Rodrigue removes taps from maple trees at his sugar camp on Monday, May 1. He runs the camp with his father on land leased from Paul Fortin in Big Six township along the Maine-Quebec border.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

But the political intrigue has overshadowed other details about the easement: Maine and U.S. taxpayers could pay to maintain syrup production done almost exclusively by Canadian entrepreneurs; there are questions about the true development threat to Big Six; and supporters of the easement cite Big Six’s importance in growing Maine’s syrup industry, but its tangible role is unclear.

Most of the plantation’s syrup is shipped back across the Canadian border to wholesalers in New Hampshire and Vermont and sold as a product of the United States — not Maine.

Producteurs de sucre

Fortin knocks on the door of a massive warehouse constructed deep in the Big Six Forest. Nobody answers, but Fortin opens the door anyway.

“Hello?” he calls.

“Oui,” a man’s voice shouts back in French.

Christian Poirier emerges from a section of the warehouse, his stout figure appearing alongside dozens of 55-gallon drums full of maple syrup. Poirier lives in Sainte-Come, Quebec, and he and Pierre Poirier lease more than 32,000 taps from Fortin.

Fortin guesses the Poiriers invested millions in the sugar camp here, although “camp” seems like a misnomer. Many of the camps here resemble industrial facilities. Several outbuildings surround Poirier’s warehouse and there’s a 33,000-gallon tank out back.

Maple syrup main lines surround a snowmobile at the Rodrigue sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

The Poiriers have also invested in transmission lines that run some two miles through the woods and across the St. John River and back into Sainte-Zacharie, Quebec. The electricity, purchased from HydroQuebec, powers large evaporators, reverse osmosis machines and other modern advancements in sugar making. Four transformers are mounted atop a shipping container that would otherwise be used to haul loads of syrup.

Fortin says operations like this one, and people like the Poiriers, helped convince him that the sugar bush is worth saving. He says cutting the trees would have yielded the most profit, satisfying his bank and his investor — a real estate firm in Canada.

“But when you take a look at all those guys over there that put all the money into this place, it would have been a hard thing to do,” he says.

Outside, the adjacent sugar bush is crisscrossed by an array of blue tap lines — plastic highways that divert sap from over 320 acres of trees the Poiriers lease.

All of the sugar bush in Big Six looks this way, and it has for some time. Poirier’s English isn’t very good, but he proudly leads a tour of the facility, showing off the new storage space and equipment.

Martin Lariviere, who runs a camp back down the road with some 76,000 taps across 553 acres, is also here. He explains why it’s better for some syrup producers in Quebec to work in the Maine woods.

Maple syrup tap lines wrap around sugar maples at the Lariviere sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

He says producers here are free to sell as much syrup as they can produce. That’s not the case across the border, where he would have to join the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

The federation has been described as like the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. It has also been described as a cartel. The federation sets prices and quotas for producers, and those who produce more than their quota have to put the syrup in reserve.

“Here they can’t touch us,” Lariviere says.

‘We lose everything’

The Poiriers and the Larivieres are among eight syrup producers who lease from Fortin. All live in Quebec and are part of the Dorchester Coop of American Sugarmakers, also domiciled in Quebec.

The co-op negotiates lease agreements with Maine landowners like Fortin so they can tap the sugar bush and produce syrup, most of which is sold in bulk to wholesalers in Vermont and New Hampshire. The wholesalers then sell to grocery chains and retailers across the country, which then package the syrup and sell it as a product of the U.S.

“There’s very few people who care about the Maine label,” says Bruce Bascom, owner of Bascom Maple Farms in New Hampshire. “L.L. Bean might, but that’s about it.”

Maple syrup tap lines — set to be discarded — sit on the ground at the Rodrigue sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

Bascom is one of the largest wholesalers in the country. He buys syrup from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Canadian producers. He estimates that he buys 3 million pounds, worth between $9 million and $10 million, from Maine each year.

“Is there any particular identity value that makes the Maine product any more valuable than the others? I would say in general, no,” he says.

The Dorchester Coop boasts some 1.2 million taps from over 40 producers along the Maine-Quebec border, yielding over 3 million pounds of syrup each year. Over 300,000 taps are located in Big Six.

Bernard Rodrigue is president of the co-op, and he his father, Rheaume, run a sugar camp in Big Six.

Rheaume, 67, has been working the taps at Big Six for almost 30 years. He started with 14,000 taps. He and Bernard now have over 70,000 across 770 acres of Fortin’s sugar bush.

“That’s my life. That’s our life, Bernard and ours. If we don’t have taps here, if we can’t stay here, then we move all this stuff and we lose everything,” Rheaume says.

Like other Canadian producers, the Rodrigues have green cards that allow them to work in the U.S. Both pay state and federal income tax on their earnings, as do the half-dozen or so workers they hire when the sap is running.

Rheaume Rodrigue (left) and his son Bernard pose with equipment they use to produce maple syrup at their sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

“We can’t hire Americans,” Rheaume says. “They can’t come. They can’t come by Canada because they don’t have a passport and can’t cross the border every day.”

He adds, “And they can’t come through the woods. It’s about two hours and a half to come here from Jackman. And it’s not a good road.”

Producers like Rheaume are hopeful they’ll be able to stay. So is Fortin. He says he and the co-op recently agreed on a 20-year lease that’s contingent on the easement.

Cut or tap?

The Trust for Public Land’s J.T. Horn says the case for the conservation easement is clear-cut.

It’s a business decision for Fortin — and the state.

“But it’s also a decision that for the state of Maine is about preserving a place that provides a quarter of the maple syrup production in one facility,” Horn says.

Horn says all of that disappears if Fortin cuts the sugar bush. And, he says, Fortin has a financial incentive to do it.

“Those trees are worth a helluva lot more cutting them down than getting a buck a year for a maple tap,” he says.

Paul Fortin (right), talks with maple syrup producers Rheaume and Bernard Rodrigue in their boiler room while visiting their sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

The Trust for Public Land, or TPL, is helping Fortin obtain the easement.

TPL has garnered the support of outdoor sporting organizations, the Maine Maple Producers Association and Republican and Democratic legislators. In 2013, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King both sent letters of recommendation to the U.S. Forest Service when TPL submitted its application for roughly $3.5 million from the Forest Legacy Program.

There are some who question whether Big Six is under threat of development — and whether it’s really more profitable for Fortin to cut the sugar bush. But most skeptics are unwilling to comment publicly.

Nonetheless, Mike Farrell doubts leveling the sugar bush is in Fortin’s financial interest. Farrell is director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest, a maple syrup research center in Lake Placid, N.Y. He’s leaving the position in June to get into the syrup business, but he spent several years studying the economics and development of the industry.

“When you have a sugar bush that has been tapped for decades, there’s already a lot of tap holes in that wood. So the commercial value of those trees has been reduced,” Farrell says. “It makes the most sense to continue tapping those stands.”

He added, “The most economical, rational decision for a landowner who already has existing leases on the property is to continue those leases. It’s worth more over time than cutting the trees for timber production.”

Rheaume Rodrigue proudly explains his sap-to-syrup process at his sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

Fortin says the tap leases are not enough to pay the mortgage. When he bought the property, his plan was to cut.

“Because we were in a logging business, we were looking at it as a resource for that business,” he says.

Fortin bought Big Six in late 2012, purchasing it from LandVest, a Boston company with land holdings across the U.S., including old timberland in Maine. Fortin says LandVest didn’t do much with the property for about 10 years, but it allowed the sugaring to go on, as did Leroy Martin, the previous owner.

With the exception of the sugar bush, Fortin says the two previous owners took most of the timber revenue out of Big Six.

“The softwood resource when we bought it had been cut, and we’re 20 years, 25 years, from cutting softwood again,” he says.

When asked why the previous owners didn’t cut the sugar bush, Fortin shakes his head.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Development threat reframed

It takes four border crossings and a U.S. passport for most Mainers to get in and out of Big Six. It’s the easiest way into the property — often the only way.

Jean Pierre Lariviere (from left), Christian Poirier and Martin Lariviere pose with barrels of maple syrup they produce on land leased from Paul Fortin in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

In fact, the remote location was an early roadblock to obtaining the $3.5 million for the easement.

When TPL first applied for the funds, through the federal Forest Legacy program, its application was rejected because the development threat to Big Six didn’t score high enough.

“Where the property is located is pretty remote from population centers in Maine, but it’s only about 90 minutes from Quebec City, and there’s a huge market for camps and hunting and fishing properties and subdivisions for cabins that are coming from the Canadian side,” says Horn with TPL.

TPL reapplied. Instead of emphasizing the development threat from the U.S., it focused on Canada. The new application included a letter from a Canadian real estate broker, who asserted that citizens in Quebec City and its suburbs had a limited ability to purchase camps lots “surrounded by large tracts of forestland.”

Big Six, the broker wrote, would be “especially intriguing.”

Horn brings up the letter on the drive between the Sainte-Aurelie and Jackman-Armstrong border crossings. The land here is more developed than on the Maine side of the border, with modest homes, farms and rolling hills. The route is dotted with hamlets like Sainte-Aurelie, population 900, and Sainte-Zacharie, population 2,000.

TPL’s second application convinced the administrators of Forest Legacy.

Maple syrup in 55-gallon drums with producers labels await shipment to buyers at the Rodrigue sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

The Big Six easement won federal funding. The project ranked No. 6 in the country.

No quid pro quo

The Big Six conservation project is in the spotlight because of Fortin’s political giving.

He has contributed money to the successful gubernatorial campaigns of LePage, who previously said Maine would not seek future federal conservation funding under the Forest Legacy Program but would allow several projects in the works to move forward.

Fortin also contributed to a political action committee run by the governor last year.

He’s emphatic there’s no quid pro quo between him and LePage. Still, the governor’s reported support of the project has raised eyebrows. LePage has been a vociferous critic of the Land for Maine’s Future program, or LMF. He said he “hates” the program two years ago and implied it fosters corruption.

LMF board members are appointed by the governor. All of the current board members are either LePage appointees or members of his cabinet.

Fortin now needs LMF funding to complete the easement. He could be in a good position to get it.

Maple syrup, in barrels stacked three high, awaits shipment to buyers at the Lariviere sugar camp in Big Six township on Monday, May 1.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

Fortin says he was contacted last summer by a former administrator of the ICE PAC, LePage’s committee, formed to defeat Democratic legislators and candidates. Fortin acknowledges that there were a few lawmakers he wanted out of the Legislature. So he donated $20,000 to the PAC to execute the deed.

Fortin is emphatic that he didn’t receive any assurances from ICE PAC that the governor would support the Big Six easement. That’s because the LePage administration backed the project early on.

The project still needs roughly $2 million from LMF as match for the Forest Legacy funds. While Big Six’s remote location could conflict with LMF’s traditional preference for conservation projects that stress public access, the board is reviewing new scoring for the next round of funding.

Momentum

The Big Six project has received backing from the Maine Maple Sugar Industry Task Force, a group created by the Legislature in 2011 to explore ways to grow the industry.

Fortin says members of the task force helped convince him to preserve the sugar bush, as did the LePage administration.

“We were under a fair amount of pressure to come up with a different plan. And that’s where we are today,” Fortin says.

J.T. Horn, senior project manager at Trust for Public Land, is working on a conservation easement that would allow Paul Fortin to continue leasing land in Big Six to maple syrup producers.
Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public

Horn says the project is worth the investment.

“Would it be better if it was U.S. workers? Absolutely, I would love that. But it is what it is, and the alternative is that we could see Maine’s maple syrup production cut by 20 or 25 percent,” he says.

Proponents of the project say maintaining that syrup production will help Maine retain its No. 3 ranking in U.S. syrup production. The tangible economic benefit of that ranking, however, is unclear.

“If Maine has aspirations of branding a signature product for export, having that supply available allows you to pursue that aspiration,” Horn says.

Horn was referring to a goal of the Maple Sugar Industry Task Force: to create a brand for Maine maple syrup. Progress on that front has been limited.

Meanwhile, much of the syrup from Big Six continues to flow out of Maine. Some makes its way back into the state to Maine Maple Products in Madison, a wholesaler that packages and sells the syrup as a product of Maine. Most of it ends up with out of state wholesalers.

Before departing his sugar camp, Rheaume Rodrigue takes his guests into the rain to a large shipping container outside.

He throws open the doors, revealing dozens of 55-gallon drums of syrup. He’s shipping it to Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville, Vermont, where it will packaged and sold as a product of the U.S.