By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
As lawmakers departed Augusta last month, they left a debate unsettled about how much wood to cut from Maine’s public forests, how to use the revenue from those logging operations, and what will become of $11.5 million in voter-approved, land-protection bonds.
In the coming weeks, a 15-member commission will start meeting to sort out parts of the debate — mainly, how state officials should determine how much wood to cut from 400,000 acres of state-owned land and the proper use for the related revenues.
The commission, written into the state’s new two-year budget, evolved this spring out of a dispute among lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage over the governor’s push to harvest more timber from state-owned forests. His initiative would direct the additional harvest revenue to the Efficiency Maine Trust so rural, low-income households could access funds to upgrade to lower-cost heating systems.
Lawmakers have twice rejected LePage’s plan. But LePage still demands that the Legislature approve his timber harvesting plan before he releases $11.5 million in bonds voters approved in 2010 and 2012 to fund the Land for Maine’s Future program.
The commission’s meetings are coming at the right time. The panel — which will include lawmakers and foresters along with tourism, outdoor recreation and commercial timber industry representatives — can contribute to the debate in a big way. Its members should weigh in on whether it’s time for Maine to refresh its approach to managing public lands and take a position on the best use for funds from timber harvesting operations on state-owned land.
The land at issue
Maine has more than 600,000 acres of public land holdings, mostly dotting the northern two-thirds of the state, much of which has been in state hands since Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820.
The land is mostly open to the public and set aside for ecological reserves, wildlife habitat and backcountry recreation. Some 400,000 acres are also open to logging, and that land has been thrust into the spotlight over the past two years as LePage has pressed for the ability to harvest more timber each year.
But under state law, Maine’s public lands are supposed to be managed for multiple uses: preserving the lands’ ecological value, protecting wildlife habitat and promoting outdoor recreation in addition to harvesting. The amount of wood cut from the land each year has generally been well below the amount a commercial timber harvesting operation would cut from its land each year.
More than timber
In the late 1990s, Bureau of Parks and Lands foresters and outside experts, using public input, developed a vision for how Maine’s public lands would be managed. The result was Maine’s Integrated Resource Policy, which set species diversity and preservation of mature and old-growth trees as goals for state-owned timberlands — goals that wouldn’t necessarily apply to commercially owned forests. The bureau’s more finely tuned regional management plans, which set out 15-year goals for various land parcels, reflect those priorities.
Over the past decade, the result has generally been conservative harvest levels well below the public lands’ “annual allowable cut” and tree growth on public lands that is 18 percent faster than all of Maine’s other forests, according to the Bureau of Public Lands.
“Their first purpose is not for timber harvest revenue,” said Amanda Mahaffey, Northeast region director of the Forest Guild, a professional foresters’ association. “Their first purpose is to preserve ecological integrity across Maine’s landscape.”
“What that means is their foresters practice a level of forest management that is more refined,” said Robert Seymour, the Curtis Hutchins professor of forest resources at the University of Maine in Orono.
More trees harvested
With more wood on its lands and recent favorable harvesting conditions, the bureau has increased its cut over the past seven years.
“That the harvest can go up now, I think, is a tribute to their excellent historical stewardship,” Seymour said.
The account where harvest revenues go, the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund, which funds bureau operations and public land improvements, has built up a balance — $8 million in June — that LePage has been eager to tap.
The Bureau of Parks and Lands, based on traditional calculations, set its 2013-14 harvest level at 141,500 cords of wood. But the LePage administration wants to increase the cut even more: At one point in 2013, according to administration emails obtained by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the administration sought to grow the cut to 227,000 cords per year before settling on 180,000 cords — which approximately matches the forests’ growth rate — in the bureau’s latest annual report. In the state’s two-year budget, legislators limited the bureau to 160,000 cords.
LePage and the Maine Forest Service have repeatedly said Maine needs to excise more trees from state-owned forests before they succumb to a coming infestation of spruce budworms — which largely target fir trees. But foresters are far from certain the budworm will hit Maine public forests in a devastating way in the coming years. The Bureau of Parks and Lands, after all, has long emphasized cutting fir trees as a way to guard against an infestation.
The problem is that the higher harvest levels sought by LePage don’t correspond with any formal change in management plans, much less a change that has involved the public input that is traditionally a part of the Bureau of Parks and Lands’ management process and a requirement of the bureau’s forest sustainability certifications. They correspond with LePage’s desire for more revenue to use for a purpose unrelated to public lands — a questionable and unprecedented use for the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund that could set a dangerous precedent for using the funds in the future for any purpose, related to public lands or not.
Perhaps the public lands commission will determine that the Bureau of Public Lands needs to update its management vision, inviting public input and potentially setting different, science-based goals that include a higher harvest.
But until such a land management reboot happens, the LePage administration isn’t standing on solid ground in demanding higher harvest levels, then redirecting the revenues to an unrelated purpose.