The Cold Stream Project, negotiated with Plum Creek, is in danger, particularly in light of the news that Weyerhaeuser is poised to buy Plum Creek.
By David Trahan
Kennebec Journal op-ed
On Nov. 30, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel ran an article about the resurgence of white-tailed deer in the small rural town of West Forks, in northern Somerset County.
In the article, a local store owner said people hope that the big bucks tagged this year will boost the The Forks area’s four-season economy. That hope does little to capture the deep hunting culture and history of the region, nor the ferocious battle that is being waged in the Legislature to invest in the habitat and wildlife surrounding this and other small towns throughout Maine.
First, Somerset County is one of the poorest areas of our state, with a poverty rate of 17.8 percent, compared to the statewide average of 13.6 percent, and an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, more than twice the statewide average. It also has the unflattering distinction of holding the state’s highest rate of poor elderly at 14.1 percent.
In contrast, Somerset County was once a nationally recognized hunting destination and a gateway to the town of Jackman’s “Big Woods.”
The West Forks story illustrates how the loss of manufacturing jobs and the decline of the paper industry have left few job opportunities in rural counties like Somerset. While the forest products industry remains an important economic driver, most of the remaining jobs are deeply rooted in natural resources such as the Kennebec and Dead rivers, deer hunting, fishing, guiding and outdoor recreation. Consequently, the success and prosperity of these communities depend on the enhancement and protection of wildlife and their habitat.
In 2011, as a state senator, with the support of conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy and Maine Coast Heritage Trust, I led an effort to change the Land for Maine’s Future program to prioritize state land purchases that preserved wildlife habitat in an effort to revitalize rural Maine’s economy. This new language was written by respected wildlife deer biologist Gerry Lavigne and became law in 2012 when 61 percent of Maine voters passed a $5 million Land for Maine’s Future bond:
“The Department of Conservation and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shall take a proactive approach to pursuing land conservation projects that include significant wildlife habitat conservation, including conservation of deer wintering areas.”
As a direct result of this new law, the Cold Stream Project, one of the greatest conservation projects of my lifetime, was developed and proposed for the West Forks region. Working with Plum Creek and the Trust for Public Land, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry negotiated a deal that would sell 8,153 acres of critical wildlife habitat to the state, including 3,000 acres of prime deer wintering habitat, 30 miles of trout spawning streams and nine undeveloped ponds. This gem surrounds West Forks and would forever be managed for wildlife and guaranteed traditional public access.
Then, last year, Gov. Paul LePage announced that he would hold hostage Cold Stream and more than 30 other approved Land for Maine’s Future projects, representing more than $10 million in conservation bonds approved by voters, until the Legislature agreed to allow more aggressive cutting on public lands and until they appropriated $5 million generated from cutting trees to pay for his new, still undefined, home heating program.
The ensuing legislative battles and delays have left needless scars on everyone connected to the issue, but what is being lost in the fire and smoke of battle is the question of what happens to projects such as Cold Stream when they are dragged through the muck and mire of Augusta politics?
The answer is scary. The governor’s unnecessary delays threaten the current Cold Stream purchase and sale agreement. This agreement between Plum Creek and The Trust for Public Land expires this month and now must be renegotiated. Through this long process, Plum Creek has been a very supportive and patient partner, but like other landowners stuck in this process, they shouldn’t be expected to wait forever.
In addition, it was announced on Nov. 8 that Plum Creek will be sold to Weyerhaeuser, creating the nation’s largest landowner worth $23 billion. This deal is expected to be completed by February or March, meaning Plum Creek no longer will have control over the Maine property. Instead, decisions and deals, which should have been completed by now, will rest with a new unknown landowner and a Weyerhaeuser board, whose closest holdings appear to be North Carolina.
Unlike Plum Creek, which allows free public use of its land, Weyerhaeuser sells recreational leases for even the simplest forms of outdoor recreation. Perhaps Weyerhaeuser will decide this land is worth more to the company as leases than a sale to a now-hostile state government.
Once again, I ask the governor and the people of Maine this simple question: Why should it be so hard to help the people of Somerset County rebuild their economy?