By A.J. Higgins
MPBN news story
A conservation group that took a stand 40 years ago to protect the Bigelow range in western Maine has re-emerged to draw public attention to state policies they say could endanger the public lands.
The Friends of Bigelow say the LePage administration is ignoring state law, forestry science and public policy by overcutting the 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve. But state forestry officials say the area contains more forest today than it did 10 years ago.
Maine writer and activist Lance Tapley spearheaded the petition drive in 1976 that forced a ballot question protecting the western mountain range known as the scenic Bigelow Preserve. Now Tapley says the Friends of Bigelow have been resurrected in the face of a new threat.
“We feel that during the past few years, basically under the LePage administration, there has been an overcutting, an overharvesting of the wood and the preserve, there also has been the creation of basically woods road highways as opposed to the woods roads that are permitted under the Bigelow Preserve Act,” he says.
All of which, Tapley says, is at odds with the science used in sustainable forestry practices and a violation of the voter-approved law that safeguards the range’s seven summits, including West Peak at 4,150 feet.
Tapley says there’s no reason the administration can justify its near doubling of the harvest over the past four years to about 51,000 cords — other than just the lure of raking in more profit from cutting off public lands.
“They’re using big harvesting machines to cut down the wood,” Tapley says. “In the past year or so, the 25-year veteran forest service manager of the preserve, a licensed forester, quit in protest of being asked to harvest too much wood in the preserve.”
“Either I had to do what my bosses asked me to do which would be going against what we promised the public we would do, or I had to do what I had promised to the public, which would mean not doing what my boss had asked me to do, so that was an ethical situation that couldn’t be resolved in my mind,” says Steve Swatling, the former Bigelow Preserve manager, explaining why he resigned over a harvesting policy dispute last year.
Swatling says forest managers have become increasingly irrelevant in a state administration that is pushing for increased timber harvesting on public lands.
“State foresters have stood up at public meetings and past directors who have now since left have stood up before the public and said, ‘You don’t need to worry because on the ground foresters are making the decisions,’ and that’s simply not true,” Swatling says. “The on-the-ground foresters have lost their authority to make those decisions. They’re being told what their decisions are as far as their authority and that has just resulted in this deception of the public by the administration, and the assurances that they’re offering just aren’t true anymore.”
Although he would not comment on Swatling’s reasons for leaving the department, Doug Denico, head forester at the Maine Forest Service, says his foresters are given plenty of discretion in harvest management.
“I’ve tried to give them more options and more flexibility provided it’s within the scope of that of our policy book on how you conduct yourself on the landscape, so if anything I think they’ve got more freedom to operate than they probably had experienced before,” he says.
Denico also disagrees that timber harvesting at Bigelow violates state forestry practices. He says profits are always secondary to department goals for the preservation of public views, trails and other ecological values. And while he agrees that more timber has been cut over the past four years than in the past, he defended wider roads as a way to provide better drainage to preserve wildlife habitat.
As far as what was cut, he says it’s justifiable.
“On the north side of Bigelow we had a lot of poplar and that poplar had come in there that when the fires that took place when they burned the brush, when they cleared Flagstaff Lake, those fires got away from them and got onto the Bigelow lands and poplar came back as a result, so we went over there and we said, ‘Yes, we need to cut some more wood here.’” Denico says.
Still, conservation advocates such as Cathy Johnson at the Natural Resources Council of Maine maintain that the LePage administration is harvesting too aggressively.
Denico says environmentalists can rest assured that for the next several years, there are no plans for further cutting at Bigelow because the state has, “done what needed to get done.”