By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
The last day of the 2016 legislative session didn’t go Gov. Paul LePage’s way for the most part, with lawmakers overriding more than 60 percent of the vetoes the governor put before them.
But LePage got his way on one issue over which he’s been at odds with most lawmakers in recent years: management of the state’s 600,000 acres of public reserved lands. The Maine House upheld his veto of legislation that spelled out timber harvesting rules for the state Bureau of Parks and Lands and added new restrictions on the use of an account set aside for the lands’ management.
On two separate occasions over the past few years, LePage has proposed — and the Legislature has rejected — increasing the amount of wood harvested from 400,000 acres of the state’s public land holdings and diverting the sales revenue to a low-income heating upgrade program. LePage’s insistence on the scientifically and legally unsound proposal led a special legislative commission last fall to examine the state’s public lands and the account set aside for their management.
To start, LePage’s proposal to divert money from the state’s Public Reserved Lands Management Fund to pay for heating initiatives put his idea on shaky constitutional ground. In a legal opinion prepared for the public lands commission in October 2015, Attorney General Janet Mills wrote that LePage’s proposal “would likely meet great skepticism from the Court” given that Maine holds its public reserved lands and associated funds as part of a public trust, with the original, legally binding terms defined in 1820 and limiting the funds’ uses today.
In addition, the LePage administration didn’t follow a transparent, science-based process when it concluded that dramatically more wood should be cut from land that exists for multiple uses. ( Under state law, those uses are outdoor recreation, sustainable timber harvesting and preservation for ecological purposes.) Administration emails from 2012 obtained by the Natural Resources Council of Maine showed that the recommendation of an elevated harvest level was clearly a political, not scientific, exercise.
That is what made LePage’s veto letter last month so ironic.
In the letter, he lambasted lawmakers for establishing a new harvest level in the state budget that passed last June as a political compromise, “not the product of hard science.” (Indeed, lawmakers inserted the cap as a check on LePage’s desire to direct the Bureau of Parks and Lands to cut more wood.)
And he criticized recommendations from the public lands commission that state law require a science-based process for setting new timber harvest levels.
“Perhaps, the Commission’s unstated goal was to prevent timber harvesting altogether by occupying the Bureau’s staff with so many reporting requirements enough to keep them out of the field,” LePage wrote.
The commission recommended new legal provisions that wouldn’t be needed under normal circumstances — as in, circumstances in which a sitting governor isn’t continually pressing for more wood to be cut from the state’s public lands but instead allows Bureau of Parks and Lands foresters to do their jobs.
The legislative commission’s recommendations were largely a response to the concerns surrounding LePage’s proposal — further legislative oversight over the lands’ management fund, a requirement that the fund always carry at least a $2.5 million operating balance, and a requirement that the lands’ timber harvest levels be adjusted only after input from forestry experts.
What’s become clear from the work of the public lands commission and the governor’s insistence on increasing timber harvesting is that Maine’s 600,000 acres of public reserved lands need a management reboot.
The commission’s recommendations offered that. State Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, the commission’s Republican chairman, said recently that he plans to propose those recommendations again in the next session of the Legislature — provided he is re-elected. Saviello would be wise to do so, and the Legislature would be wise to follow suit by a veto-proof margin.