In spite of increasing questions about whether Maine's Public Lands are being treated more like commercial forests than the multiple-use forests they were established by law to be, logging targets increased from 141,000 to 160,000 cords per year when the new biennial budget was signed into law in late June.

The 160,000-cord-per-year limit (averaged, over three years) was introduced quietly and late into the budget process after the committee that oversees public lands held the line at 141,000 cords. The new law calls for an independent timber inventory to be conducted after July 1, 2015, to see if the 160,000-cord limit meets the requirements of sustainable forestry.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which has heavily promoted the increased logging on public lands, had an independent inventory conducted in June that indicated 180,000 cords per acre were growing on public timber lands each year.

However, the focus on a statewide average appears to contradict the state's own sustainable forestry policy on public lands, which requires tailoring harvest levels to smaller land units and balancing timber harvesting and management with other uses of the land. The policy states that "sustainable harvest will be calculated separately on about 15 segments ... of the overall landbase, with groupings made to combine nearby parcels with similar biophysical conditions and growth patterns."

The department's own policy goes on to require that timber targets may need to be lowered in some areas to meet the goal of public lands management, which is "to demonstrate exemplary land management practices, including silvicultural (forestry), wildlife, and recreation management practices, as a demonstration of state policies governing management of forested and related types of lands."

These are likely to be some of the topics looked into by a new commission that is to be formed to review how the state's public lands are managed and to study whether to allow expanded uses of the timber revenue they generate. The public lands commission must be formed within 30 days of the passage of the state budget.

Under state law, the timber revenue from Maine Public Lands is held in trust to be used to maintain and manage those lands. The governor has unsuccessfully sought to tap into that trust fund and divert it to pay for unrelated energy projects.

The commission will also review proper sustainable timber harvest levels and how to meet them: how to balance recreation, wildlife habitat and public use with forest management; best management practices for addressing timber pests and diseases; investments in public lands to increase public access and spur rural economies; and the role that public lands play in the state tourism economy.

Members of the commission are to include legislators, a forest scientist, a forester, an industrial landowner, a logger, and representatives from a sportsman group, a conservation organization, and outdoor recreation interests, as well as the commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, and the director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico, who has pushed hard for increasing timber harvests, is currently in charge of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, a position that some see as in conflict with the multiple-use mandate of the Bureau.

No information was yet available on who would be appointed to the commission, which must be formed by the end of July. The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which are likely to be tapped for the commission, reported no invitations had been offered.

The commission is tasked with submitting their findings in a report to the legislative committee that oversees public lands by December 5, 2015.