“No extra cash,” say Public Lands directors
by Christine Parrish
Free Press news story
“This is not the State’s woodlot. It’s the people’s land. It’s our land. We hold it in trust for Maine people. It’s not just about the money we make.” — Will Harris, former director, Maine Public Lands
The first hurdle for those interested in tapping into the public lands trust account is whether Maine’s constitution allows it.
Jerry Reid from the Attorney General’s office told the commission that two previous attempts to divert the trust funds over the past 40 years failed under legal scrutiny. Reid said if money is successfully diverted for other uses on this attempt, it would set a precedent for the future. It would also likely trigger lawsuits against the state, he said.
Those are likely to be key items of discussion in future meetings.
Reid said past legal rulings indicated that there was some limited flexibility in how the funds are used, but that it was not the role of the attorney general’s office to define specifically what would or would not pass legal scrutiny. Reid noted that the commission could seek a legal opinion on a specific use before they submitted a final report to the Legislature.
But the discussion of revenue coming in from timber harvesting and other sources, set against expenses, indicated there was little actual money to spare.
Doug Denico, acting director of Maine Public Lands, outlined the existing needs for building better logging roads on public land and said that timber market prices were down. He said about $8.3 million were needed to fund Maine Public Lands operations this coming year. Denico said the estimated revenue from timber and leases in the same time period was around $9.1 million.
Former director of Maine Public Lands Will Harris told the commission that the $800,000 difference between revenue and expenses should more accurately be regarded as a fund for operating expenses — to pay loggers for hire before the wood was actually sold, for example, or to pay for emergency work after a storm — not as a surplus.
Harris cautioned the committee against taking money out of the trust fund for any continuing expense, noting that to do so would set an expectation that timber revenue would fund other programs indefinitely.
“Then you would always know that you had to make the nut,” said Harris. That would shape the decisions managers made and public lands would likely become a political tool to raise money, according to Harris. If money was to be diverted — and he didn’t think it should be — it would be better that it be for a specific one-time project.
A representative for Efficiency Maine appeared before the commission, as did several other groups. Efficiency Maine was identified by the LePage administration as the agency that would be the recipient of diverted public lands funds that would then be used for rebates for wood heaters or other home and business energy systems if the governor is successful in breaking open the public lands trust fund.
None of the groups specifically requested funds from the public lands trust fund account, but instead gave an overview of their missions and projects.
During the course of the afternoon, a discussion about recreation started out with current and former public lands directors talking about how they tried to address public requests when funds allowed.
Harris, Denico, and former acting director of Public Lands Tom Morrison said they were aware of a backlog of trail work and maintenance.
“We are responsive to what the public wants for trails,” said Denico. “If people need this, then let’s go do it and try to put the trails where they want.”
“How would that translate into a budget increase for recreation?” asked Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy. Abello was appointed to the commission to represent conservation interests.
“We would have to fund that out of timber money or outside money, I presume,” said Denico, referring to a recreation project in the Moosehead region that was funded by timber industry giant Plum Creek.
Abello noted that the increased timber revenue gave the Bureau more opportunity to fulfill the mission outlined in the public trust to enhance recreation.
But Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited later urged caution, noting that strategic recreation planning, not following public whims, was the important task ahead.
Reardon said it was important to know what impacts a new trail or logging road will have before they are put on public lands. Reardon noted that making new logging roads that are good enough for recreationists will open up more terrain, and that could have lasting and irreversible impacts on trout streams and spawning, which could also influence whether native trout will inhabit backcountry lakes.
The Bureau of Public Lands, which manages over a half million acres, shares one professional outdoor recreation planner with 48 Maine state parks.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the commission member who was appointed to represent those interests, had to leave the commission meeting early, but later raised questions about Denico’s projections of expenses. Trahan said the commission should look very hard at expenses related to building new, bigger and better logging roads and whether those roads are justified in light of the multiple-use mandate on public lands.
As the meeting continued late into the day, the commission was no longer asking what the money could be used for outside of state public lands management and had switched to asking questions about what had not been done on public lands that needed to be done.
Nearing the end of the meeting, Ed Meadows, who helped shape the 1985 public lands management policy that governs how those lands are managed and who retired from his directorship of the Land for Maine’s Future program last January, said the commission has an important question to ask: Does the public lands bureau have an adequate system and the people to do the computer modeling needed to justify upping the cut?
A recently retired Maine Public Lands forester, Steve Swatling, told the commission the answer was no. Swatling said the computer modeling that the increased timber harvesting was based on was inaccurate and that he had been reprimanded by his superiors for bringing it to their attention.
Denico has pushed for upping the cut to 180,000 cords per year for 20 years, based on an industrial forestry approach that could be done, he said, without threatening sustainability certification, but which others argue is not in keeping with the exemplary standard of multiple-use management.
Sustainability certification is an industry-created standard.
Other topics before the commission remain to be explored, including the role public lands play in tourism and local economies, a more thorough discussion of whether the increases in timber harvesting meet the standards of exemplary land management, and how best to manage the public lands if a new budworm epidemic or other pest or disease problem occurs.
The public commission was formed at the end of the last legislative session in the face of mounting pressure from Governor LePage to increase timber cutting on Maine Public Lands and to use timber dollars from the public lands trust fund to fund energy savings for businesses and homeowners. The governor continues to refuse to sign off on already-approved bond funds for the Land for Maine’s Future land conservation program until the Legislature agrees to increased cuts and diversion of money from the trust fund.
The second meeting of the Commission To Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, September 29, in Room 216 of the Cross State Office Building in Augusta. The last two meetings are tentatively scheduled for October 27 and December 1, with the commission expected to submit proposed legislation to the Legislature at the end of the year.
Former Maine Public Lands Forester Steve Swatling Reveals Why He Blew the Whistle
Public Lands Forester Steve Swatling said publicly for the first time that he blew the whistle on the big increases in timber harvests planned for Maine Public Lands — a stance that he said was for ethical reasons and is behind why he retired early from his 25-year position as the preserve manager and forester of the 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve Public Reserve Land, which is located 40 miles north of Farmington.
The preserve encompasses the entire Bigelow mountain range, including West Peak, one of only 10 mountains in Maine that are over 4,000 feet in elevation. The Appalachian Trail runs through the Bigelow Preserve and 20,000-acre Flagstaff Lake is located on the north end.
Swatling, who had expressed concerns to fellow foresters and Bureau of Public Lands superiors about the scientific basis for the increases in timber harvesting that started on Maine Public Lands three years ago, said he became even more concerned when he discovered that the computer modeling that allowed for increasing harvest levels appeared flawed.
Swatling told the Public Lands Commission at its meeting on September 9 that the computer model developed by the Bureau had simplified the forestry science and spat out a cookie-cutter approach on how to manage the complex late-successional older forest on the Bigelow Preserve. Swatling knew that the simple cookie-cutter approach would be unlikely to be used on the Bigelow mountains that he managed for timber, recreation and ecological reserves, but he also knew that the computer model assumed those trees would be cut when they wouldn’t be. That meant the model was inflating the average. The result, according to Swatling, was that more timber would likely be cut elsewhere on Maine Public Lands, and cut much harder than it should be if exemplary forestry was the goal — which, according to Maine state law, is the goal on its Public Lands. And it would allow increased logging without sounding alarms that might threaten sustainability certification, because the cut would still appear to be below the average.
Typically, a new computer model would be run several times and tested for accuracy. That wasn’t done, said Swatling. Instead, a test run was considered a final product. New computer modeling was necessary to avoid overcutting, he told the commission.
Swatling had been reprimanded for making his views on the increased harvest levels known at the professional foresters annual Maine Public Lands Silvicultural Advisory Committee meeting two years ago. The official reprimand was for reading a poem aloud with a fellow employee during a break at a field site. The limerick was about the increased harvest levels sought by Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico and Governor LePage. It included no profanity.
Last year, Swatling was directed to increase harvesting timber to a level he considered to be overcutting, and he decided to demonstrate that the computer modeling was inaccurately directing the work on the ground. Working on nights and weekends, he ran the numbers for the forest units he had responsibility for and asked for a meeting to share the spreadsheet with his superiors in December 2014. Swatling also included a dollar estimate of reduced revenue coming in based on the miscalculation.
Swatling said Regional Director Peter Smith and then Acting Director of Public Lands Tom Morrison listened to his explanation and looked at the spreadsheet while he explained it, then ignored his concerns and told him to “go cut more wood.”
Swatling offered to share his spreadsheet showing the flaw in the model with the commission.
According to Swatling, his duties as the Bigelow Preserve Manager were split 60/40 between forest management and recreation for two decades. That changed in 2014 when he was told to focus 95 percent of his time on forest management and timber harvesting.
This year, before he announced his plans to retire early, Swatling was awarded the Integrity in Conservation in forestry award by the New England Society of American Foresters, a professional organization for licensed foresters in eastern Canada and the eastern U.S.
Swatling’s efforts to right what he considers a breach of conservation ethics began three years ago when I asked him why public lands had increased timber harvest levels. Swatling was a colleague when I worked as a professional educator at the Maine Forest Service and remains a personal friend. I?had discovered the increased harvest target after reading a short paragraph buried in the public lands annual report. Swatling’s response at the time was that he didn’t know that timber harvest targets had increased.
When he pushed for public input after further increases were adopted without public knowledge and was warned to stay silent or face repercussions, Swatling alerted me and I followed up with requests for information from the state agency overseeing Maine Public Lands.
The Maine Public Lands commission, which was formed by the state legislature to study how to spend what appeared to be a bonanza of money in the Maine Public Lands timber trust fund account and to evaluate the management of the public forests and their contribution to the public good, met for the first of four meetings on Wednesday, September 9. When they adjourned over six hours later, it was unclear if there really was extra money available or if the public lands were actually being fully managed for timber, wildlife and recreation to the “exemplary” standard intended by state law.