The pending decision about the Plum Creek proposal may be a tipping point in determining the future of Maine and “the way life should be.” Perhaps, we need to take a lesson from Plum Creek’s involvement in Montana. The parallels to Maine are breathtaking.
Grist for my argument comes from a New York Times best-selling book by Jared Diamond, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” The book is a provocative analysis of the factors involved in the collapse of both modern and ancient societies. It begins with a case study of modern Montana, including an analysis of Plum Creek’s involvement in Montana’s environmental and economic decline.
Montana, like Maine, is a large state with a small population. Again, like Maine, it is well-known for its natural beauty and bountiful recreational opportunities. And it faces many challenges similar to Maine. It is away from high-population markets; it has locally and seasonally poor air quality; Montana has experienced losses of biodiversity, damage from introduced pest species, effects of climate change and issues in water quality. The only sectors of its economy that are growing are tourism, recreation, retirement living and health care. Montana’s young people are leaving the state because many of them aspire to non-Montana lifestyles or because they can’t find jobs in Montana.
Also like Maine, Montana has large tracts of private timberland that have changed hands. Plum Creek is the largest owner of private timberland in Montana (and second-largest in the U.S.). Montanans hold deep-seated attitudes of pro-individual rights and anti-governmental regulation — the same attitudes that created a weak and politically appointed Land Use Regulation Commission in Maine. With weak government regulation, Montana permitted unrestricted land use by private landowners and thus opened the door for Plum Creek land development.
Remember, Plum Creek is organized, for tax purposes, as a real estate investment trust so that its earnings will be taxed at lower rates as capital gains. No longer able to get a high rate of return from its Montana logging operations, Plum Creek turned to developing Montana land, especially land along rivers and lakes, for real estate, rather than for timber. Consequently, logging in Montana declined because wealthy buyers of beautiful recreational property would pay more than buyers of timber.
According to Diamond, Montana has not always benefited from this land development. Many second home owners are careful to stay in Montana for less than 180 days per year, in order to avoid paying Montana taxes, thereby contributing to the cost of local government and schools. In addition, the huge jump in property values and home prices created a housing problem for the working poor in Montana.
In short, Plum Creek profited greatly from Montana’s bounty while Montana’s economy and environment continued to decline. As Diamond reminds readers: “Plum Creek is organized as a profit-making business, not as a charity.” That’s why Mainers need to be deeply suspicious of the conservation easements so clearly outlined by Rip Stavin in the March 29-30 BDN column “Reject Plum Creek Proposal.” Those easements allow Plum Creek many loopholes for profitable rights such as industrial forestry management, rights to build cell towers, and the potential for gravel mining and commercial water extraction. Plum Creek is not here for the benefit of Maine. American businesses exist to make money for their owners; it is how American capitalism works, both for the good and the bad.
The question is, will Maine benefit in the long run from the Plum Creek proposal? Or will Plum Creek profit while Maine’s economy and “life the way it should be” continues to decline? This dilemma is about a dramatic change in Maine’s forest management. In some version or another, change is a factor that every evolving society has to confront. And how a society makes its choices at critical tipping points inevitably leads to its success or failure. Here’s what Diamond said to Montanans about Plum Creek. He could be saying the same to Mainers:
“If Montana citizens want Plum Creek to do things that would diminish its profits, it’s their responsibility to get their politicians to pass and enforce laws demanding those things, or to buy out the lands and manage them differently.”>/p>
Do humans <em<ever</em< learn from history?