By Alan Crowell, Staff Writer
WATERVILLE — In a warning for Maine’s north woods, a Montana conservationist Monday described Plum Creek as a “cold-hearted” company that places its shareholders’s returns over its conservation promises.
“What they say you are getting is not always what you are going to get,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.
Farling said Plum Creek Timber Co.’s record in Montana is one of environmentally poor logging and land-management practices that cut off access to areas historically open to the public.
Farling also said that while Plum Creek sells land for conservation purposes, it extracts top dollar for environmentally sensitive land, and writes conservation easements that leave the door open for everything from gravel mining to oil and gas extraction.
“Keep your eyes open, there is a reason there are loopholes and (vague language),” said Farling, who said he came to Maine at his own expense to alert Maine people about Plum Creek’s record in his state.
The warning is timed as the Land Use Regulation Commission prepares to take Plum Creek’s proposal to rezone about 421,000 acres around Moosehead Lake in Somerset and Piscataquis counties to the public sometime next year.
The concept plan submitted to the commission would allow for the development of 975 house lots, including 480 shorefront lots, and two separate resorts, one on Lily Bay and one near Moose Mountain, each with the potential of hundreds of homes.
According to Diano Circo, northwoods policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the fine print in Plum Creek’s proposal would allow much more extensive development.
The plan would allow for an unlimited number of boat houses or club houses up to 5,000 square feet on shorelines where development is proposed, according to Circo.
Plum Creek also has applied to put an additional 32,000 acres into a “future development zone,” which could mean thousands of more lots in future years, and Circo said that conservation easements offered by Plum Creek as part of the deal are less than they appear.
About half of the shoreland conservation easements are for ponds already protected by existing laws.
Other conservation easements would allow gravel mining or water extraction, including even the possibility of a water bottling plant, according to Circo’s reading of the plan.
Kathy Budinick, spokeswoman for Plum Creek, said her company engages in conservation partnerships all across the country and has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres.
“This is done because we understand that some of the land we own has special values,” she said.
In response to Circo’s statements, however, Budinick said Plum Creek’s conservation easements in Maine were specifically designed to set land aside for forestry practices and do not allow the alteration of the surface of the land.
Budinick said there were some exceptions, however, including for the removal of gravel, surface decorative rock and for the extraction of water.
She said that while buildings could be constructed to allow for the extraction of water, she did not believe that bottling plants would be allowed.
Budinick also suggested that other conservation groups that had worked with Plum Creek could provide a better picture of the company’s record than Farling did.
One of those organizations is the Montana chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Jamie Williams, director of the Montana chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said his organization had worked with Plum Creek on several conservation land purchases and found it to be a good partner.
Plum Creek works with environmental groups to identify land of high public and environmental value and make that land available, said Williams.
At the end of the day, however, he said Plum Creek is not in the business of giving away land.
“They are willing to place environmentally sensitive land in conservation hands if it can be bought for fair market value,” said Williams.