AUGUSTA – An environmental group is ratcheting up the heat on Plum Creek Timber Co. in a report released Wednesday that details fines against the company, permit problems and logging in areas important to deer survival during winter.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine said the report highlights serious concerns about Plum Creek’s record on sustainable forestry, environmental protection and wildlife management. Group members contend that the documents also raise questions about the Seattle-based company’s trustworthiness as it moves forward with development plans for the Moosehead Lake region.
A Plum Creek spokesman acknowledged past mistakes but said the company works closely with state agencies to correct them. One state official added that he was encouraged by the company’s recent cooperation on protecting winter “deer yards.”
Using internal state documents obtained through the Freedom of Access Act, NRCM compiled a list of violations and official complaints against Plum Creek, including:
- A $57,000 fine for violations of Maine’s timber harvesting laws, the largest such fine in state history.
- Construction of a 7,500-foot-long power-line corridor outside of Greenville without the necessary permits.
- Water quality violations in Somerset County.
- Multiple instances of logging within areas that state biologists said was needed to protect northern Maine’s fragile deer population during winter.
The report is NRCM’s most serious salvo to date against Plum Creek and the company’s petition to sell 975 house lots and land for two resorts near Moosehead. The proposal, which also includes more than 400,000 acres of permanent conservation, would be the largest subdivision ever in Maine if approved by state regulators.
Cathy Johnson, NRCM’s North Woods project leader, said she believes Plum Creek’s environmental and forestry record are relevant to the company’s Moosehead plans, which the group contends will harm the region’s wilderness character.
“Plum Creek is saying, ‘Trust us, we’ll do a good job in the development plan,”’ Johnson said. “Yet when you look at their record, they cannot be trusted.”
Jim Leaner, manager of Plum Creek’s northeast region, interprets the company’s record differently.
“We have been here [in Maine] eight years, and certainly we’ve made a few mistakes. We’re not perfect,” Lehner said. “But I think the key there is when we do have an issue, we get on it right away and work closely with the agency and resolve it.”
Much of NRCM’s report focused on logging on Plum Creek land that has been identified as winter habitat for deer, which are at the cusp of their range in northern Maine. These areas, known as “deer yards,” offer shelter from the deep snow and bitter winter weather under the interlocking crowns of adult conifer trees.
In 2005 and early 2006, biologists with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife sent a bevy of e-mails to their superiors in Augusta blasting Plum Creek for cutting in deer yards against their recommendations. Several biologists questioned whether the state’s cooperative approach on deer yards with Plum Creek was working, suggesting instead a move toward the more heavy-handed protective zoning.
In a January 2006 e-mail cited in NRCM’s report, DIF&W wildlife biologist Eugene Dumont called the company’s history with deer yards “feeble and dismal” and suggested Plum Creek was the worst major landowner in the state on the issue.
In another e-mail, biologist Douglas Kane lamented the loss of additional deer wintering areas, or DWA, along the East Outlet of Moosehead Lake as well as what he described as years of unproductive negotiations with Plum Creek.
“Unfortunately, we have accomplished absolutely nothing in terms of conserving shelter for wintering deer on their ownership,” Kane wrote in a January 2006 e-mail. “In fact, we have lost important acres and continue to loose [sic] what little DWA shelter is left on their ownership in my region.”
On Wednesday, Lehner said the company has since halted harvesting in deer yards identified by DIF&W biologists and is working with the department.
Kenneth Elowe, head of DIF&W’s Bureau of Resource Management, said many of those e-mails were sent at a time when staff were experiencing their “peak frustration” toward Plum Creek on the deer issue. Elowe said things have improved considerably and that he is encouraged by the change.
“Since then, I would say since April or May, we have seen a lot of progress with them,” Elowe said. “They have become much more cooperative, especially on the biological basis of what deer need.”