by Mechele Cooper
The state’s largest forestland owner unveiled a proposed “resource plan” on Tuesday for 427,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region that would mix development with protection for pristine ponds and a guarantee that a working forest wouldn’t be developed for at least three decades.
Plum Creek Timber Co. executives called their plan “visionary” and “comprehensive” and said it would provide the company some certainty while protecting important recreational areas.
“We see this plan as a tremendous amount of conservation,” said Rick Holley, the president and chief executive officer of Plum Creek. “Ninety-five percent of the land is committed to long-term forest management and conservation, meaning no development for a 30-year period,” Holley said. “We’ll cut and grow trees, nothing else.”
Holley said the company may revisit the plan after 30 years.
He said the company would file an application for the plan with the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission — which must approve it — in January.
State officials and conservation groups reacted cautiously Tuesday to Plum Creek’s announcement.
Cathy Johnson, North Woods Project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the scale of the proposal is without precedent in the state. She noted that LURC law requires that any development of this scale be balanced by comparable conservation.
“Development is permanent,” Johnson said Tuesday. “The conservation proposed in this plan should be permanent. We’re hoping to have further conversations with them to make sure that the conservation is as permanent as the development will be.”
Patrick McGowan, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Conservation, said he hadn’t seen the proposal, but has met with Holley and his associates. He said Plum Creek’s plan is a new business model that was tested with the company’s Roach Pond Lake Concept Plan.
“We’ve had 7 million acres of land exchanged in the past six years,” McGowan said. “At least Plum Creek is letting people know what they plan to do with their land.
“They’ve decided they want to go down this road with development, and we have in Maine a very good foundation for them to get through that. Now, it’s just whether we can handle the application, because it’s so big.”
The Plum Creek plan would guarantee that 95 percent of the 427,000 acres — about half of Plum Creek’s land holdings in Maine — would remain working forest accessible by the public and undeveloped for the 30-year term of the plan.
The plan also includes:
James Lehner, general manager of Plum Creek’s northeast region in Fairfield, said the residential house lots would be 2 to 5 acres. Of the 800 to 1,200 new house lots, between 30 and 40 percent would be back lots, he said.
“This is not a big change in development currently occurring there,” Lehner said. “What we’re proposing is the same amount that has occurred over the past 20 years.”
But Johnson, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the 800 new house lots is five to 10 times more than the biggest proposal ever reviewed by LURC.
Based on the average rate of development of new homes in LURC jurisdiction, she said she expects about 250 new homes over the next 30 years.
“This scale of development could change the character of the Moosehead region forever,” Johnson said. “This is a turning point in the history of Maine’s North Woods.”
John Simko, town manager of Greenville and founder of Maine Woods Coalition, said he has seen a lot of different proposals for the area, from heavy development to a national park, and he believes Plum Creek’s plan is the best mixture of conservation and development he has seen yet.
“We’re very pleased with what Plum Creek put forward and believe it has great economic community promise for this entire region, especially Greenville,” Simko said.
Plum Creek grows and harvests timber, but also has become a sizeable real estate development company — often mixing the two businesses in single transactions.
In an earlier transaction, Plum Creek sold 29 miles of shoreline around Moosehead Lake and 445 along the Kennebec River to the state. It also converted forestland in the Moosehead Lake region into 62 shorefront camp lots on First Roach Pond.
The company became one of Maine’s largest landowners when it purchased 905,000 acres in 1998 from Sappi Fine Paper North America.
Holley said the company recently signed an agreement to purchase an additional 48,500 acres of Maine timberland — including 19,000 acres in Bowerbank, 8,900 acres in Bever Cove Township and 20,600 acres in Indian Stream and Squaretown townships — bringing the amount of land the company owns in Maine to 953,000 acres.
Holley said Plum Creek is negotiating with the state Department of Conservation for new conservation transactions in the Roach Pond region near the 100-Mile Wilderness Area and the Moose River Bow Trip area.
The Seattle-based company — whose motto is “growing value from exceptional resources” — is the second-largest private timberland owner in the country.