There’s a lot to be said for Maine’s cooperative approach to managing natural resources in the North Woods.
Most of the state’s 10.4 million acres of unorganized territories are privately owned. Given that fact and the realities of politics, laws and regulations are always going to yield lowest-common- denominator-type protections at best.
Cooperative conservation requires rangers, biologists and other officials to invest time in negotiations with landowners to arrive at management decisions that benefit both the public and the company bottom line.
Often these efforts yield results that go beyond what regulations would deliver. Yet the recent disclosure that the Plum Creek Land Management Company was assessed a record fine for violating various state rules and regulations suggests the state of Maine should adopt a more focused approach on oversight.
While timber resources on private land are property of the owners, the air, water and wildlife on those lands are owned by all citizens of Maine.
The era of giant timber companies managing their expansive holdings for 60 to 80 years is largely over.
These companies have different corporate structures and different needs that may render them less able to respond to the kinds of approaches that worked in the past.
In June, Plum Creek was assessed the largest civil penalty ever issued by the state over forestry, permitting and wetlands violations on its Moosehead Lake region holdings from 1995 through 2003. The $57,000 penalty, three times larger than the previous record, stemmed from incidents the company itself reported as a result of a consent agreement.
It’s troubling that Department of Conservation did not disclose the record fine when the case was settled. The fine came to light after some sleuthing by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the biggest critic of Plum Creek’s massive development proposal for Moosehead Lake.
Plum Creek officials say they acknowledge their errors and have retrained their foresters and managers to ensure the violations don’t recur.
NRCM also disclosed a number of e-mails from state wildlife biologists frustrated by the company’s repeated cutting in areas critical to the survival of wintering deer.
However, it appears Plum Creek didn’t technically violate state rules with regard to deer yards because it didn’t cut in state-zoned areas.
Nonetheless, Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologists were upset by work the company did in areas IFW specifically asked that the company protect. In one Lexington Township example, biologists found Plum Creek honored a zoned deer yard, but cut hard in a nearby area IFW wanted protected. The difference was so stark, the biologist recommended using it as an example of bad management.
Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s Maine general manager, also said that in the wake of the incidents, the company had now committed to protecting 15,000 acres of winter deer habitat, double what it had previously targeted.
The Plum Creek episode shows the world has changed. Where the state in the past could rely on voluntary cooperation, it must now consider establishing clear rules and unambiguous requirements to protect the public interest.
That won’t necessarily be easy. Since the 1980s, the staff of the Forest Protection Division has been cut by 50 percent. Since the 1990s, Department of Conservation staff has been cut by 30 percent. The Land Use Regulation Commission only has about two dozen people to manage the 10.4 million acres under its purview.
Clearly, state agencies responsible for protecting natural resources are undermanned. While new technologies, like geographic information systems, can help speed the assessment process, there’s just no substitute for boots on the ground. Given the importance of deer yards, LURC also ought to revisit its zoning approach to see if more aggressive protections are needed.
The state should continue working with the Forest Products Council to develop incentives, such as tax rebates for protecting wildlife habitat, that might be attractive to the short-term owners.
Timber investment operators and real estate investment trusts should remember that Maine’s preference for cooperation has been based on the willingness of landowners to play ball.
It makes sense to consider Plum Creek’s violations in the context of its Moosehead development proposal. Obtaining LURC’s approval will be a powerful impetus for it to comply with the letter — and the spirit — of state rules and regulations, at least in the short term.
But these events are also evidence that LURC ought to insist on as many specifics about Plum Creek’s development plans as it needs to guarantee the public interest in public resources is protected.