A Fisherman in the Forest

Against all odds, Tom Turner of Katama has established a one-man lumber industry using timber nobody else wanted from the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

Just a few years ago, Tom Turner of Katama knew about as much about trees as the average lifelong fisherman. “I went up to the state forest to get oak to burn, and all of the rest of the stuff was pine trees to me,” he says. “Couldn’t tell the difference.”

But commercial fishing was a hard business, and getting harder. Tom decided to supplement his income, and in his naiveté, he looked at the 5,100 acres of trees in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest and figured there was money to be made. Had he known better, he might not have done it. People had tried to make a lumber industry on the Island for more than seventy years, and had mostly failed.

The Manuel F. Correllus State Forest – for centuries considered a windy and almost worthless expanse of scrub oak, huckleberry, and stunted pines rolling across the middle of the Island – was set aside by the state in 1908 as a habitat for the last population on earth of the heath hen, an eastern subspecies of the greater western prairie chicken. Over the years the reserve grew to its present size. The heath hen didn’t make it – it went extinct in 1932 – and state forestry officials decided to try to convert the former preserve into a source for Island lumber. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing until the early ’90s, some 1,700 acres were planted with conifers. The foresters and the Island waited for the trees to grow.

But there were problems. The soil was thin, sandy, acidic, and prone to drought. The trees were never thinned or cared for properly. Many were exotic. Among these, several large plantations of red pine, growing outside of their natural range, fell victim to blight. The state, facing all these challenges and short of money to confront them, long ago gave up on the idea of ever making any money from the planted forest.

Nonetheless, about three years ago, Tom Turner laid out for a mobile timber mill – something about the size and cost of a large pickup truck – got the relevant permits, and went into the lumber business. “For the first two months I spent every day cutting or milling,” he recalls, “before I sold my first $100 of wood. For the first couple of years I was wondering what the hell I was doing, but I’ve had a real education in woods.”

His learning materials are stacked all around him in his Katama shed. He spits on his hand and rubs it into a piece of the dusty lumber propped against the wall, and the grain of the timber appears. The transformation brings a smile to his face. “Lumber,” he says, “is kind of a hard thing to look at, until you put some water on it, then it’s like, Whoa, it’s a board. This slab of timber is Siberian elm. The pattern in its wood is beautiful. It’s a member of the walnut family and has this spectacular cat’s-paw marking in it that’s very special.”

All sorts of arboreal exotica have come into Tom Turner’s hands, now that word has spread of him and his mobile mill: Douglas fir, cedar of Lebanon, Japanese fir, Alaskan cedar. Victims of storm damage or selective culling, they come from all over the place: the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown; the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury; Main Street, Edgartown; and several properties belonging to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.

Some of this wood is earmarked for use – the elm will make flooring in Tom’s home – and some has been sent to a furniture maker; the Alaskan cedar from Polly Hill also provided wood for a furniture maker to build a chair for a fund-raising auction. Most of the special timber is still in Tom’s shed, “just hangin’ out,” getting drier. His real business, though, comes from the state forest: the introduced red and white pines, the native Island pitch pine, some oak.

He points out a pile of timber, neatly stacked for drying, which takes the better part of a year in the humid Island air. It’s red oak, quarter sawn (that is, with the grain running at 90 degrees to the board face, to minimize warping), and destined to be a staircase. Another pile of heavily grained, knotty wood is the red pine. That’s the stuff you mostly notice as skeletal trees along Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. But when Tom finds a healthy tree, it makes fine lumber. He’s already sold a little for flooring. “The forestry people are just happy for it to be harvested before it dies, because then it’s just an expense where they have to pay for someone to come in and grind it up. Good for nothing except a forest fire.”

Gradually, Tom’s trade in building wood is growing: a floor here, a pergola there, sheathing for a shed. But most of his output still goes for more prosaic things: eight-by-eight-inch square cores, which are sold to boatyards. He now sells around 1,000 of them a year. And all the pots he uses to fish commercially for conch, lobster, sea bass, and scup are made from forest timber.

Last winter, for the first time, he had to turn some customers away. The bulk of Tom’s income still comes from fishing, but his lumber business is doing well enough now to prove wrong those experts who said there was no future for lumber from the Vineyard. Indeed, Tom Turner reckons the forest could sustain others like him. “There’s room for plenty of other people if anybody wants to do it,” he says. “It’s awful hard work, but me and hard work get along fine.”