Testimony at the Maine Legislature
by Cathy Johnson, NRCM North Woods project director
Good afternoon, Senator Nutting, Representative Piotti and members of the Committee. My name is Cathy Johnson. I am a resident of Alna. I am here today to testify on behalf of 8000 members and supporters of the Natural Resources Council of Maine Neither in support of L.D. 1547.
We are in times of great change in Maine’s North Woods.
For over 100 years, starting in the late 1890’s, the 10.5 million acres in the area now described as the unorganized townships of Maine, or Maine’s North Woods, were primarily owned by two types of land owners. One type was paper companies who managed the lands in order to harvest wood for their paper and lumber mills. The other was consolidated large family ownerships that were managed by land management companies such as the Seven Islands Land Company or Prentice and Carlisle to produce wood which they sold, primarily, to the paper mills.
For all of this time, the vast majority of these lands were open for public use for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, canoeing and other outdoor recreational activities.
During this time, development in the North Woods was relatively limited. Loyal employees of paper companies were provided leased lots for seasonal hunting, fishing and recreational camps, but the major landowners concentrated on growing trees, not houses.
During the late 1980s, there was a brief flurry of development in LURC jurisdiction using the 40 acre lot loophole, but the Legislature fortunately closed that loophole and stopped that destructive sprawling development practice.
In mid 1998, however, everything in the North Woods began to change. Lands in blocks of hundreds of thousands of acres began changing hands. As of three weeks ago, with the recent announcement of the sale of the Fraser lands, over 7 million acres – well over half of the North Woods – have been sold to new owners; some of this land has been sold twice in the last six years.
Today, instead of millions of acres of the North Woods being owned by companies who run mills, only about 1.5 million acres are managed by companies that operate mills.
Instead we have whole new categories of landowners in the North Woods – landowners whose goals are very different from the goals of the paper companies and families who owned the North Woods for most of the 20th century. We have investment companies whose goal is to maximize their return on investment in the next 8 – 10 years and sell out. We have companies, both large and small, whose primary goal is to achieve the highest financial return for their stockholders through real estate development in the North Woods. We have logging contractors who simply want to cut wood from the land as fast as they can with no thought of long term sustainable management. We have conservation owners, both public and private, who do not plan to do any cutting at all. And, perhaps most notable, we have landowners whose identity is unknown, private limited partnerships whose names change frequently and whose goals for the land are unknown.
For many of these new landowners, maximizing their financial return through selling off lands for development, something that was previously extremely rare, is on the verge of becoming business as usual.
Because of all these changes, the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and the rules adopted by LURC in the mid 1990s are no longer sufficient. That Plan and those rules were designed for a time when the major landowners were focused primarily on growing trees. Now we have major landowners who are just as willing to sell land for development as they are to grow trees.
The Land Use Regulation Commission needs some breathing space. They need to have the time to step back and work with the people of Maine to create an updated vision for the unorganized townships. They need the development pressures to be slowed so that they can look at and revise their existing tools to make sure that they can protect the character of the unorganized townships in the face of the tremendously increased development pressures they are now facing.
Maine is in possession of a resource of huge significance – the largest undeveloped block of forest land east of the Mississippi. The actions of a few landowners in the next couple of years could change all of that. We encourage you to provide LURC with the breathing space they need to fine tune their tools in order to adapt to changing times.
We encourage your support of LD 1547.
Thank you for you attention to these comments.