By Kevin Miller
AUGUSTA, Maine — Plum Creek’s recent apology for an illegal clear-cut is generating mixed responses from organizations involved in the contentious debate over the company’s Moosehead Lake development plan.
Earlier this week, Maine Forest Service officials announced they had fined Plum Creek $38,675 for a 2008 logging operation in Beaver Cove near the eastern shore of Moosehead Lake. A contractor hired by the company had clear-cut approximately 240 acres on three parcels without leaving adequate separation zones and without filing harvest plans.
The land in question is part of a massive conservation easement negotiated as part of Plum Creek’s historic plan to rezone land for 975 house lots and two large resorts near Maine’s largest lake. At the time, however, Plum Creek’s plan was pending with the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Mark Doty, community affairs manager for Plum Creek in Maine, said Friday that more trees were logged on the three parcels than called for under the harvest plan. Although a contractor cut the trees on Prong Pond Mountain where the violation occurred, Doty said Plum Creek ultimately was responsible. Maine Forest Service officials have said the company cooperated with the investigation.
“We definitely made an error. We regret it and we apologize,” Doty said. “We have made significant improvements to the process going forward.”
State regulators approved Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake development proposal last year after one of the largest and most contentious regulatory reviews in state history. More than eight months later, that decision remains under appeal in the courts.
So it’s no surprise that not everyone is satisfied with the company’s apology.
The Moosehead Region Futures Committee pointed to the heavy cutting on Prong Pond Mountain in Beaver Cove in one of its filings with LURC in April 2009 as an example of the organization’s concerns about Plum Creek’s commitment to forest stewardship.
Wendy Weiger, executive director of the grass-roots organization, said the cut is clearly visible from Lily Bay Road headed toward Beaver Cove from Greenville and, therefore, affects the scenery of the area.
“It’s no secret to anyone in the Greenville area,” Weiger said. “It’s so obviously visible and people were asking if this was a violation.”
Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Plum Creek also has recently acknowledged harvesting in deer winter areas that the company had agreed to protect. And in 2006, Plum Creek was assessed what was then the largest fine in state history for logging violations under Maine’s Forest Practices Act, he said.
“There is a long history of Plum Creek just ignoring the state’s environmental standards,” Bennett said.
Under the terms of the development concept plan approved by LURC, Plum Creek has agreed to sell conservation easements on 266,000 acres of forestland in the Moosehead region. The company donated easements on an additional 97,000 acres.
Those easements still allow logging. But any harvesting plans will be subject to additional scrutiny by the easement holders, including the Forest Society of Maine.
Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, said the additional oversight and scrutiny means the likelihood of similar clear-cuts happening in the future are “greatly reduced.”
Should Plum Creek or a future landowner violate the terms of those easements by managing the land in an unsustainable way, they would face financial penalties or have to undertake restoration projects, he said.
Hutchinson also credited Plum Creek officials for working closely with his organization and others to implement the conservation portion of the development plan.
“We have been pleased with Plum Creek’s responsiveness and their willingness to accept that they erred here,” Hutchinson said of the clear-cut. “I think they are quite embarrassed internally that this incident occurred.”
Weiger said she believes Maine residents have even more at stake in ensuring land around Moosehead Lake is being managed in a sustainable way now that the development plan has received approval.
“Certainly the increased scrutiny should be helpful,” she said. “I guess my concern is that the easement covers a very large area and it will be hard to monitor” all harvest operations.
Plum Creek’s Doty said that after the 2008 incident at Beaver Cove, company staff have gone through additional training in the Maine Forest Practices Act.
Doty said Plum Creek also works hard to manage its nearly 900,000 acres of timberland in Maine in accordance with the standards set out by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a third-party certification program.