by Christine Parrish Staff Writer
Free Press news story
OVER THE COURSE OF THREE DAYS last April, the Maine Forest Service, the governor’s office, and the custodians of Maine’s public lands cut a private deal behind closed doors to log 26 percent more timber from public lands – an amount that would roughly generate an additional $2 million more a year than was taken from the public forest the year before.
In doing so, they made a significant shift towards seeing Maine’s public lands as a bank account full of money trees and away from recognizing their status as constitutionally protected forests that offer a whole lot more.
“Was it exemplary foresty practices that directed you to increase the harvest?” asked Representative Brian Jones of Freedom, on Tuesday, when public lands managers came in front of the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (ACF) Committee to give an annual update on public lands.
Or was it the money?
“This was not a funding issue,” said Will Harris, director of Maine’s Division of Parks and Public Lands (DPPL).
BUT EARLIER IN THE DAY, Governor LePage made it clear it was about the money for him when he announced a plan to use the public’s trees to fund $1 million a year in home energy rebates.
The energy rebate is still a proposal whose merits will be debated in front of the Legislature.
But the increased timber harvests and the money they will generate to fund that proposal started in private discussions between the governor’s office and the Maine Forest Service a year and a half ago.
It was official policy by last April.
Only, the public didn’t know until it was let out of the bag last fall.
Rumors of an increase in the timber harvest were brought up at a Flagstaff Lake regional planning meeting last year that focused on recreation interests, but Harris and DPPL managers said they weren’t there to talk about forestry, and said the public would have their say at the annual presentation to the legislative committee.
Besides, this was more of an adjustment than a new policy, said Harris, according to notes taken at the annual silvicultural advisory committee meeting last fall. The silvicultural committee, made up of forestry experts and conservationists, offers advice on ecologically sound forestry. The notes were obtained, along with other supporting documents, in a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. They were released earlier this week.
“The public interest lies elsewhere, not in the thick weeds” of forest management, said Harris, according to the silvicultural advisory committee document.
MAINE PUBLIC LANDS, which make up just three percent of our heavily forested state and include such prime recreation areas and ecologicallyvaluable sites as the Mahoosuc and Bigelow Mountains, the Cutler bold coast, and Tumbledown, are under the custody of the Division of Parks and Public Lands (DPPL). Constitutionally, the lands are to be managed for a balance of recreation, aesthetics, and ecological values while also being harvested for timber that generates revenue to keep the whole operation going. Public Lands does not tap into tax dollars.
By law, it’s a self-supporting system, with the revenue going to everything from picnic tables to building logging roads, from forestry data analysis to staff salaries. By law, the money must be used on public lands.
Also by mandate, the Public Lands foresters are tasked with practicing “exemplary forestry” on the public’s behalf.
For the past 30 years, they have become known for doing just that – grooming forests for multiple values, including managing older, more complex forests than those that are owned by timber industry companies like Irving.
By most accounts, it’s been a success. Under the custodianship of the DPPL, the public lands forests are growing, with trees putting on height and heft, according to a recent forest inventory.
Keeping a forest healthy is a balancing act, though, and the recent forest inventory indicated to many forest managers that more timber should be harvested to keep the public forests vigorous. With the data to back them, the DPPL increased the timber harvest to 141,000 cords in 2012.
That increase was acceptable to many conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the silvicultural advisory committee.
Hiking the cut up another 26 percent was another story. The advisory committee to the DPPL raised concerns about ethics and questioned the scientific basis for the hike, according to the documents released. The legislative committee echoed those concerns on Tuesday, March 18, when DPPL made its annual presentation to the committee.
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“Are we to decide on this?” asked Senator James Boyle, a forester from Cumberland on the ACF committee who pressed Harris and Morrison for the scientific basis for increasing the harvest. He was not satisfied by their answers.
“We are required to provide a report to the committee,” Harris replied.
“If the committee doesn’t like … (this), would you say, ‘Thank you for your opinion’ and that’s that?” Boyle asked.
Harris hesitated, then nodded.
“Well, yes,” he said.
THE DOCUMENTS OBTAINED by Johnson fill in a lot of the blanks, showing a clearly plotted timeline to go after more timber, starting a year and a half ago.
The governor wanted the money off those prime forest lands to use for other things and the state’s top forestry official, Doug Denico, a former timber industry executive, held the opinion that the public forests had too many trees.
In a document dated October 22, 2012, they agreed that the current forestry policy on Maine’s public lands was “to hold public money hostage.”
They justified upping the cut well above 141,000 cords a year to get to some trees before they were threatened and died as a result of predicted insect infestations, such as the spruce budworm, as well as to provide a source of wood to Maine’s private mills to keep them in operation when private timber supplies fall short.
For six months Denico and the governor’s office nurtured the idea of substantially increasing timber harvests on public lands without input from the DPPL, who has jurisdiction over them. On April 11, 2013, the Maine Forest Service and the governor’s office asked DPPL how much money they could generate from timber harvests without risking the black mark of losing certification for sustainable forestry. They wanted an answer within a week.
On April 15, DPPL responded, using the scientifically approved harvest levels of 141,000 cords per year – a sustainable harvest level that would put about an extra half a million dollars in the Public Lands kitty, above previous timber harvest levels.
Two days later, that scientifically informed number provided by DPPL was scuttled and the note of pride in their forestry was missing from a draft dated April 17, 2013.
The focus of the April 17 draft was practical: how to increase the timber harvest levels as much as possible while not violating the legal requirement of the DPPL to manage the forest for other values. They also noted the importance of developing “a rationale for the increased harvest levels that will satisfy … our forest sustainability certification.”
The document was signed by Denico from the Maine Forest Service and Harris from Public Lands.
Unlike the draft submitted by DPPL just two days earlier, it did not mention exemplary forestry.
TO BE CLEAR, the change in policy is not going to result in big old clearcuts. The change is something more subtle: a slow shift from Maine public lands standing up as a model of how to cultivate a healthy and complex forest over time – with all its associated benefits from more diverse wildlife habitat to better disease resistance, to greater carbon sequestration – to an approach that more closely resembles the economic forestry model that industry follows.
Industry forests can still be certified sustainable, even with younger trees and less complex forests, but economics is their primary goal and that means simpler forests with fewer species that are logged more frequently. The result, over time, is a less diverse forest.
University of Maine Forestry Professor Robert Seymour, who is considered to be a forester’s forester, made the point last fall that it was possible to cut more timber while keeping the older forest stands and improving the quality of the forest at the same time, but that this new Maine Forest Service-backed approach is backwards, according to notes of the 2013 Silvicultural Advisory Meeting.
“Moving the harvest up to 180,000, or whatever, is the most important decision a forester can make,” said Seymour, according to the notes. “This increase is based on shaky ground.”
“It gets into some ethics,” he added.
Last fall, the Forest Stewardship Council weighed in, cautioning the DPPL that their certification for sustainable forestry practices could be in jeopardy if they did not correct the lack of public involvement in the process.
“WE AGREED TO DO what we think we can do,” Harris explained to the legislative committee Tuesday, noting that the increased cut was acceptable, but not sustainable past the 20-year time frame proposed.
Your foresters will do what the boss wants, said Rep. Boyle, the forester, in response.
“It’s not that it’s not achievable,” said Boyle. “Because you can cut it, doesn’t mean you should.”