by Christine Parrish
Free Press news story
A new commission has just been formed by the state legislature to study the impacts of a shift away from a conservation forestry focus on Maine Public Lands to the commercial timber approach it embraced in 2013 — and the possible uses of those new timber dollars. The commission will meet for the first time on Wednesday, September 9, in Augusta.
Maine Public Lands (617,000 acres, or about three percent of the state) include well-known rec-reation areas like Tumbledown Mountain, the Bigelow mountains, Mount Kineo and the Cutler Coast. About 400,000 acres are actively managed for timber.
The Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) receives no tax dollars to operate, recreational use is generally free to the public and, under state law, the money generated by logging is restricted to being used for recreation, ecological protection and monitoring, and high-quality forest management on the state-owned public lands.
In the past 25 years, two state attorneys general have found attempts to divert the timber revenue for other uses to be unconstitutional.
The new commission will meet four times and report back to the Legislature by the end of the year. It was formed in the wake of an increase in logging from 115,000 cords a year from state public lands in 2012, to a target of 180,000 cords per year for 20 years. Legislators on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF) Committee gave the nod to increasing logging to 141,500 cords per year and asked Public Lands administrators to hold the line until more scientific research on the impacts of increased logging could be gathered.
In January, the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) confirmed that they had cut 166,500 cords from Maine Public Lands. The ACF committee found out about the increased logging by reading about it in the newspaper.
Maine Forest Service (MFS) Director Doug Denico, who had effectively taken over as a spokesman for BPL in the past year and a half, had publicly advocated for cutting more timber so it did not “go to waste.”
Denico is now the Acting Director of the BPL and the Director of MFS. A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry said this week that there were no plans to fill the directorship of BPL or MFS, indicating that Denico will continue to do both jobs.
A discussion of the forest-science merits of the increased logging has yet to occur.
At the same time, attempts by the governor over the past two years to get access to the timber revenue — most recently by refusing to sign off on Land for Maine’s Future conservation bonds that had been approved by voters unless legislators supported approving access to the timber account — put the issue in front of the public.
For most, the issue quickly became about the Land For Maine’s Future program, not about the Maine Public Lands, which have a much lower public profile and no dedicated group that advocates on their behalf.
But legislators refused to sign off on the diversion of timber funds in June. They wanted more information before they made a decision to allow that money to be tapped for other purposes. That led to the formation of the commission.
Denico said that he is not motivated by the increased timber dollars, and the increased logging would be considered sustainable when compared to industry standards.
In fact, the forestry discussion is not that simple. The total timber harvest number is misleading whether it is 141,500, 166,500, or 180,000 cords, since public lands are not managed as a whole, nor do they lend themselves to a meaningful state-wide average; instead, by state policy, the state’s public lands are managed in Sustainable Harvest Units. Averages don’t count. Overcutting on one unit is not balanced out by undercutting on another — a distinction that has been absent from the discussion so far.
Furthermore, under the conservation forestry strategy generally used on public lands, trees were harvested less aggressively and less often than on commercial forests, but they produced high financial returns over the longer term, particularly in areas like the Bigelow mountains where the forest has been groomed to be older and more complex. Those trees tend to be larger and worth more money when they are cut, and the forests as a whole tend to be healthier and more resilient when pests or disease do strike than the less-complex forests where trees are harvested more often.
But big trees take time to grow and some are big enough already to be tempting — particularly from a forest industry perspective, where the primary goal is sustained income from a crop of trees, not a complex forest ecosystem that also produces timber revenue.
Sen. Tom Saviello and Rep. Craig Hickman will co-chair the new commission, which includes members of the forestry industry, commercial timber owners, hunting and fishing interests, the tourism industry, and conservation interests.
Saviello, a licensed professional forester who chairs the legislative Natural Resources committee, has expressed support for increasing timber harvests on state public lands.
Hickman, who co-chairs the ACF committee, pressed for more information on forestry science as it relates to the increased timber harvest targets of last spring.
Since forest health and science dominated much of the discussion about the increased timber harvests last session, the appointees to the commission who represent forest science and forestry on the ground are of particular interest to many of the foresters who testified to a “go slow” approach in front of the ACF committee last spring.
Both the “state licensed forester” and the “scientist who has studied forest health and management” were appointed to the new commission by Senate President Mike Thibodeau.
The forester appointee is Jonathan Robbins of Searsmont, a licensed professional forester who works directly with private landowners in Waldo County. Robbins said he was approached by Senate President Mike Thibodeau and asked if he was interested in being on the commission.
Sen. Thibodeau represents Waldo County.
Robbins, who is not affiliated with Robbins Lumber company in Searsmont, works directly with landowners. He said he has no prior forestry experience on public lands.
Rich Smith, a licensed professional forester and former sales manager for Pleasant River Lumber in Dover-Foxcroft was appointed to represent forest science. Smith, who lives in New Sharon in Franklin County, previously worked with Senator Saviello at the International Paper Northern Forestry Research Center, which is no longer in operation.
Saviello, who represents Franklin County, recommended Smith for the position, according to a spokesman for Thibodeau.
The first meeting of the Commission to Study the Public Reserve Lands Management Fund will be held at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 9, in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee Room 216, Cross State Office Building, Augusta.