By A.J. Higgins
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine — A special legislative commission is taking a closer look at how the state can spend $8 million in funding generated from timber harvesting of public lands.
Gov. Paul LePage has tried to use the money to pay for heating assistance for the elderly, but critics say the state constitution restricts the use of those funds.
The $8 million that has accumulated in the account comes from timber harvesting on more than 400,000 acres of Maine public lands. LePage would like to boost the current annual harvest amounts of 160,000 cords to generate revenue to pay for home heating assistance, but opponents insist the proceeds must be used for the benefit of public lands.
The 13 members of the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund learned this week that the answer lies somewhere in between.
“So your first obligation as trustee is essentially to make sure that you don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg – you have to protect the principle,” says Assistant Maine Attorney General Jerry Reid. “And then whatever else use you do with it, you have some discretion to decide.”
Reid told the panel on Wednesday that the idea that funds raised through public lands must be used for restricted purposes has its roots in the post-Revolutionary War era when tracts of Maine land were either sold or granted to individuals to raise revenue for Massachusetts.
When Maine achieved statehood in 1820, the same policies for public lands were carried forward under the articles of separation in the state constitution and have since been further regulated by state law.
Reid says that the uses for the land and the money derived from timber harvests are subject to judicial review. And that’s good news for Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican and former paper company manager, who serves as co-chair of the commission.
“There’s a little bit more flexibility and a lot more gray area as to where this money that comes from the public lands from the harvesting program could be used,” Saviello says.
A year ago, the Legislature rejected the governor’s plan to use money from the fund to help more Mainers convert to heat pumps. Reid told the commission that had lawmakers approved such a plan it would almost certainly have faced a court challenge.
Saviello says in order to survive judicial review; spending options for the fund should be closely linked to the woods products industry or outdoor recreation.
“It needs to be wood-driven energy source, I’ve always believed that,” Saviello says. “I’m a forester — I believe in wood, it keeps me warm.”
And that’s why Saviello would like to see the money used for rebate or incentive programs to make wood or pellet stoves more affordable. But Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine would prefer to see the commission consider the interests of outdoor enthusiasts.
“The recreation, the wildlife habitat have been the step-sisters of timber for perfectly understandable reasons for 30 years, but now’s the chance to kind of redress that so I would encourage you to do that,” Johnson says.
And harvesters would like to the money used for building new roads that would allow them to better access timber reserves within the public land tracts.
Saviello says the commission may propose using a portion of the fund for one or more of the purposes discussed.