By George Smith
Bangor Daily News column
A special Commission organized by the legislature to respond to Governor Paul LePage’s demands that money be diverted from the Public Lands Bureau to fund heating assistance has unanimously rejected those demands, effectively shutting the forest door on the Governor. But the Commission did vote to divert some surplus Public Lands’ funds outside the agency to support education programs for loggers.
The Public Lands Commission met for the final time today and issued the following statement:
After thorough review, the Commission has unanimously agreed upon several recommendations. We have learned that two proposed uses for the Fund – (1) the purchase of heating equipment for low-income families in rural areas; and (2) the transfer of trust monies to the Bureau of Parks and Lands for state park purposes – are not likely to withstand a potential constitutional challenge and therefore should no longer be pursued as viable options.
Commission members discussed lots of changes today to its initial recommendations, and agreed upon a series of recommendations impacting forest harvest, recreation, and wildlife management on Maine’s public lands. The Commission’s staff will finalize the recommendations and Commission members have until December 5 to confirm their initial vote in favor of those recommendations, cast at the end of today’s meeting. That vote was unanimous although Forest Service Director Doug Denico exited the room just prior to the vote so he did not vote.
Most of today’s 3 hour meeting was spent discussing forest harvesting issues, although wildlife and recreation issues did get brief consideration. There was some disagreement on who should make the final decisions on the level of harvesting on public lands, but the final recommendation leaves that up to the Bureau’s foresters, with oversight of the legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee. The Commission did recommend a new process of conducting a forest inventory every five years.
Commission member Jonathan Robbins, a forestry consultant, questioned the removal of all annual growth every year, which ignores other forest goals. But other Commission members stressed that the legislature can always act on the forest harvesting levels if necessary – as it did earlier this year when it limited the annual harvest levels. Commission members agreed that the legislature should not, generally, make the final harvest decisions.
A recommendation that BPL should “discover where the State does not currently have deeded access to our public reserved lands and begin exploring how to go about obtaining access” was also debated. Rep. John Martin, a Commission member, complained that a northern Maine sporting camp had gotten BPL to move a gate so that it restricted access to the woods five miles from the camp. Doug Denico said his agency is working on this problem. Martin also noted that Mainers can only access the land they own at Deboullie by paying an access fee to get there over the roads managed by North Maine Woods. “Maybe we should just refuse,” he suggested.
Commission member Tom Abello of the Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy proposed a recommendation to address the recreational needs of Mainers on public lands, and it got quite a bit of discussion. Tom’s proposal was:
“To better meet the needs of rural communities, the Bureau of Parks and Lands should develop a statewide priority list of recreational infrastructure projects for Public Lands. Recreational investments connect more people to Maine’s outdoors and present real economic opportunity, particularly in rural communities. Because of previous financial challenges, the Bureau of Parks and Lands has not been able to invest in recreational infrastructure, but now with additional funding can address high priority sites. To make those investments and spur rural economic activity, a statewide priority list needs to be developed.”
Dave Trahan had a lot to say about this recommendation, focusing on the need to establish a process for prioritizing the needs and projects of our public lands. The final recommendation was somewhat changed from Tom Abello’s proposal, but it will recommend that a statewide priority list of needs and projects be created.
There was an awful lot of discussion about the remaining recommendations, including a list of uses for BPL surplus funds. The final list includes spending that money on purchasing land adjacent to existing public lands, improving wildlife habitat, putting up signs related to forestry education and public lands locations, improving Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility on public lands, and giving up to $50,000 in one-time allocations to schools offering loggers’ education. Dave Trahan, a logger for 35 years, objected to diverting funding from BPL for logging education, but it remains in the list of recommendations.
Denico offered some interesting comments on deer yards, noting that “We’ve got a lot of deer yards that are not functioning – they’ve got no deer in them. We need to improve what we have before we get more.”
Most recommendations leave decisions up to BPL foresters, with little to no input from fisheries and wildlife biologists or recreational planners and managers. I think that is a real problem. Why not get the fisheries and wildlife professionals at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to participate in these processes and decisions? Particularly if we want better fisheries and wildlife habitat management and recreational improvements on our public lands.
With a huge list of needs on each unit of our public lands, identified by both the public and the BPL staff and included in the 5-year plans for each unit, I can’t believe the Commission supported taking money away from the agency to support the education of loggers. It may be legal, but it is not right.
All of these recommendations, along with a comprehensive report on the Commission’s research and recommendations, will go to the legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commission, which will schedule a public hearing on the recommendations during the 2016 legislative session, and then act on those recommendations. So this debate will continue. And you should get involved. After all, these are your lands!
Public Lands Commission Members
Senator Tom Saviello, Chair
Senator James Dill
Representative Craig Hickman, Chair
Representative John Martin
Representative Don Marean