AUGUSTA – Plum Creek Timber Co. and several conservation groups unveiled a proposal Thursday to protect more than 400,000 acres around Moosehead Lake as part of the company’s massive development plans for the region.
Plum Creek officials announced the land conservation plans roughly one week before they expect to submit revised plans to the state for two resorts and nearly 1,000 house lots around Moosehead, the largest and one of the most scenic lakes in Maine.
State review of the company’s rezoning request for the Moosehead region is viewed by many as pivotal to the larger battle over the future of Maine’s North Woods.
Company officials said the proposal is a direct response to concerns that more of the 426,000 acres in Plum Creek’s original proposal should be shielded from development and, at the same time, remain open to hunters, hikers and other traditional uses.
“We believe this framework meets the significant public requests we heard about more permanent conservation in our concept plan,” Jim Lehner, general manager of Plum Creek’s Northeast region, said during a press conference at the Augusta Civic Center.
Nonetheless, the plans received only lukewarm support from representatives of other groups vying to influence both public debate over Plum Creek’s proposal and the state regulatory process.
Plum Creek worked with three conservation organizations – The Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Forest Society of Maine – to create a framework to protect more than 400,000 acres through conservation easements and land sales.
About 330,000 acres to the east and west of Moosehead would be put into easements financed primarily with private money raised by the nonprofit organizations. The Forest Society of Maine, a Bangor-based group, would hold the easements.
Plum Creek also has offered to sell to The Nature Conservancy 27,000 acres east of First Roach Pond and another 45,200 acres on Moose River. Officials with The Nature Conservancy said 15,000 acres of the Moose River parcel could be managed by the state Bureau of Parks and Lands as an ecological reserve.
All of these deals are contingent upon the Land Use Regulation Commission approving some version of Plum Creek’s development plans.
“If LURC doesn’t accept it, that’s up to Plum Creek to decide,” said Mike Tetreault, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine. Lehner then responded that Plum Creek most likely would not place all 330,000 acres in conservation.
Walter Graf, deputy director of the Appalachian Mountain Club, said he believed the scale of the proposal would go a long way toward addressing concerns expressed about permanent conservation. He also commended the company for protecting areas around remote ponds and for working to preserve the Moosehead region’s unique character.
“Here we have a framework that has been introduced. It’s not the final answer,” Graf said.
But not all of the organizations involved in the Moosehead debate were pleased with the plans, revealing a split among conservation groups that often work together on issues.
Representatives of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of the most vocal critics of the original Plum Creek plan, said the public remains “in the dark” about the details of the company’s development proposal for the region.
NRCM’s Cathy Johnson pointed out on a map that the proposal still would allow the company to develop in areas the group has identified as being ecologically sensitive, including Lily Bay Township, along the shorelines of Long Pond and near Burnham Pond.
NRCM released its own plan earlier this month that would have Plum Creek cluster most of its development near Greenville and Big Squaw Mountain Resort.
“We’re concerned this still allows Plum Creek to do its massive, sprawling development,” Johnson said after the press conference.
Members of the Moosehead Region Futures Committee, a group of local residents who also released recommended changes to the original plan, said they felt “snubbed” because they were not aware of the discussions until Wednesday night.
Jim Glavine said he was delighted to see so much large-scale conservation in the plan. But Glavine said he was concerned that all of the parties involved, with the exception of the Forest Society of Maine, are large, national corporations or nonprofits.
“They don’t represent the hopes and desires of the people who live in the region,” Glavine said.
Plum Creek’s Lehner said the company has gathered feedback on the original plan from many different organizations, including NRCM and the Moosehead Region Futures Committee. The revisions will reflect comments from those groups, he said.
Tetreault said he understood how members of other groups may have been disappointed or surprised to hear of the proposed conservation deal. He predicted that those concerns, as well as many others, would be aired during the LURC process.
“My hope over the next weeks and months is that some of those issues, or rather all of those issues, will be addressed,” Tetreault said.